Happy Thanksgiving! This Thanksgiving, I hope you will spend time appreciating your friends and family, eating delicious food, and supporting your local indie films, like this one.
There are some (cough, Alejandro Iñárritu, cough) who say we should write off the entire comic book/superhero genre. These people say the genre is ruining our humanity, is devoid of meaning, supports right-wing ideology, and is “cultural genocide.”
I am firmly against that idea. Why not take the interesting conventions of the genre, which are the equivalent of Greek mythology for modern audiences, and use them in creative ways? The wonderful thing about the comic book genre is that it has a rich history of being used to express radical ideas throughout history. There are a multitude of ways that genre staples can be twisted and adapted to fit thousands of stories. To say an entire genre cannot be elevated isn’t the sentiment of a genius filmmaker, it’s pretentious and lazy and simply a way to ignore the interesting things that have been, and are being, done with a genre.
So that raises the question of Doctor Strange, the newest comic book superhero movie to grace the silver screen, and the 14th movie to join the MCU. How is it advancing the genre?
First off, it’s not through the story. Not that the story of a rich, successful, egotistical jerk who loses something important to him and discovers his calling as a superhero isn’t interesting. It’s just been done before. You may be able to come up with a few examples. I guess we can’t blame the filmmakers for that, though. I mean, what isn’t appealing about a white man going to an East Asian city that he doesn’t respect or know anything about, where he almost instantly masters a magical art that is special to the area, through a white teacher who has known it longer than him, but he still surpasses the teacher because.. Chosen One?
It’s probably not through the characters either. They’ve all been done before. You know the Exasperated, Long Suffering Girlfriend™. You know the equally Exasperated Black Friend™. You know the Wise Old Master™. You know the Student-Turned-To-The-Dark-Side™. You even know the Cranky Librarian™. You might even know the locations! Generic London Street™. Hospital That Doesn’t Follow Protocol™. Special Dojo in Mountains™. Space Thrown in a Time Loop.
Okay, maybe that last one is different.
However, maybe it’s through the special effects. Cities with streets that are filled with cities are folding into themselves as people run around on the folding cities within more cities in portals. Whew. It’s quite a ride. Trippy, and a little dizzying, but fun. It’s Inception on steroids.
But wait- we can’t just say the only thing this movie brings to the table are the special effects. If that is all there is to add to the genre, then maybe the doubters are right.
Except- there is a little more meat on this bone that it may be given credit for. So let’s dig in deeper.
Doctor Strange opens with Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a stuck up, Beyonce-savvy, “oh come on, we barely dated,” quippy one-liners, totally 100% apple-pie American doctor with occasionally a British accent that wants to be let loose. He’s so famous he can handpick his patients based on whose case is more severe and who he could use to win more awards. He drives a fancy car, uses a fancy phone, and then gets in a horrific car wreck.
No longer able to use his hands to do his work, Strange loses everything. He learns about a mystical place that is known to heal people. He travels to Kamar-Taj and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who begins to reveal to him the secret art of magic and alternate dimensions. The Avengers may be fighting to save the earth, we’re fighting to save our universe, she tells him. A little more than he signed up for. But hey, he’s got nothing to lose.
One of the best things about Doctor Strange is its performances. I think bringing talented actors to the comic-book genre is a great way to not only elevate the movie, but make sure the arcs of the characters are portrayed correctly and with often more depth then the script may provide. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great because of Christopher Nolan, but would it have been the same if he had cast a lower-grade genre actor instead of Christian Bale? Actors who treat their material seriously will always have my respect, and this cast earned my respect. Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor take their roles that aren’t all that new or original, and make them feel very real and genuine. And Benedict Cumberbatch makes an empathetic Strange who, while he may not have the rough, thoroughly dislikable edges Tony Stark does, makes you really feel like he’s at the end of his rope. That emotional punch makes the film work.
The other star of the movie- magic- is good and bad. The bad is that if you want to really understand the magic of the movie, too bad for you. Watching the movie, I never understood how someone got from hand waving to opening a portal. That is never explained. I can’t imagine what it feels like to create magic with your hands, because the movie never shows me how it feels. The Ancient One gives a monologue about other worlds, dimensions, and magic, but the actual physicality of the magic is never revealed. And that’s a shame, because now would be a good time, MCU, to decide if you’re going to stick with your pseudo-intellectualism science, or try and really define what is science and what is magic in your world.
The creators (including veteran horror director Scott Derrickson) seem to have chosen the latter. While that’s a bummer, the special effects are undeniably dazzling. Their innovation is what makes them stand out because good special effects are a given these days. But using them to their full potential is what this movie does. I didn’t see it in Imax or 3D, but if you’re into that, I would think this would be a good film to spend the extra money on.
What is so interesting about Doctor Strange is how detached it seems from the rest of the MCU. The Avengers are mentioned once. Strange lives in New York City, but nothing gets name dropped. The film’s third act is very different from the third acts of other superhero movies. Interestingly enough, that is where a lot of its strengths lie. It’s a great stand-alone film, which is a nice relief for those who don’t geek out over remembering facts from 13 other movies. The world is familiar, but also more fantastical than the normal MCU World.
The quote I used for the title of this review isn’t from Doctor Strange. It’s from The Avengers, in a scene between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. The two characters are agents. Very skilled agents, but still, just human. They’re thrust into a world with larger-than-life superheroes and monsters that they’ve never seen before. Doctor Strange is less about Doctor Strange being thrust into a new world as it is the audience being thrown not just a new section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but into a new world created by breathtaking special effects, inhabited by actors who make it feel real. Sure, as audience members, we’re expecting some of the familiar stuff. But overall, there are elements that feel very new.
Maybe we weren’t trained for it, and maybe it’s a little off-putting sometimes, but it sure is something exciting.