The Doctor Is In
We’re 14 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In and of itself, that is a massive triumph. Most franchises really start to suck hard by the third installment, if you’re lucky. But I’m hard-pressed to think of another film series that has the energy and longevity of Marvel Studios. Luckily, they had a blueprint to draw from.
The Marvel Universe really* began in 1961 with the first issue of Fantastic Four. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others began churning out iconic characters at an amazing rate, they broke ground in two unexpected ways. First, they took the time to give their characters flaws. Spider-Man always had money troubles. The X-Men were hated and feared by a bigoted world. The creators took the time to make the characters relatable.
Second, there was a sense of connectivity. The Human Torch might do battle with Iceman over a misunderstanding, or a footnote might explain that the Avengers couldn’t help out with a world-ending threat because they had been flung into the past by Kang the Conqueror. Sure, you could stick with certain books and still get a complete story, but there was always a sense that these characters occupied the same world and lived alongside one another. It was like a sprawling book, Marvel: The Novel, but different chapters focused on different heroes.
The MCU wisely picked up both of these threads and ran with them. They also made another smart decision. As we all know, not everybody is thrilled with superhero movies. Marvel Studios intuitively understood that and adjusted accordingly. If you want a sci-fi romp, here’s Guardians of the Galaxy. An espionage thriller? Enjoy Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Straightforward superhero adventures seemed to be confined to the Avengers films. But for Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, there was one particular character he yearned to throw into the mix, ever since the beginning. It was tricky because the MCU was based on our world, but just a little bit bigger with a little less realism. Feige knew they needed to move things along gradually and wait to introduce some of the more…unusual heroes until the right moment. For one of them, that moment is now, and the 14th film in the MCU is Doctor Strange.
We’re introduced to Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a New York City-based neurosurgeon. He’s very smart, very talented, and extremely arrogant. Strange lives in an obscenely expensive penthouse, drives a Lamborghini, and luxuriates in entitlement. He’s not shy about belittling fellow surgeon Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg), and if Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) wants to share in his greatness and his bed, all the better.
Yeah, Strange thinks he’s invulnerable. Turns out he’s not Luke Cage because he’s in a horrific car crash that leaves his hands a trembling wreck. He throws away his money on repeatedly unsuccessful treatments and wallows in self-pity while pushing away Christine. He thinks his life is over. It isn’t. Strange learns about the, well, strange case of Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a man who miraculously recovered from catastrophic injuries. How? It was all due to a specialist in Kathmandu.
Strange travels to Nepal, and quickly discovers how special this specialist really is. He meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and becomes one of her pupils. Is it accurate to call the Ancient One a sorcerer? No, but it’ll do until a better word comes along. Call it magic or extra-dimensional energy, but Strange learns to harness it and bend it to his will. As humility is beaten into him, he befriends Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), one of the Ancient One’s lieutenants, along with Wong (Benedict Wong), a persnickety librarian. Strange will need friends to deal with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student with sinister motives.
The Marvel Universe has more to it than a bunch of superheroes. There are an awful lot of weird-ass corners populated by demonic motorists, talking ducks grappling with existential crises, and mystics. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko** created Dr. Strange in the comics during 1963, the character was a way to introduce some horror elements and inject elements of psychedelia into the comics.*** You want someone to punch out a mugger, you call Daredevil. You need someone to handle reality-ending threats from beyond the stars, you call the good Doctor. The comics needed ways to push the narrative envelope, and the MCU is no different.
That’s great, and Doctor Strange does go for a different aesthetic, at least on the surface. We’ve got impressive visuals, a weird mishmash of the Escher-inspired Inception and Ditko’s art. We’ve got a hero who saves the day, in part, because his consciousness is heightened and he learns to not defeat his selfishness, but to rise above it. We’ve got the Cloak of Levitation, a sentient garment of clothing that helps out Strange and seems to have the personality of a friendly but finicky cat. Director Scott Derrickson does solid work when it comes to the look of the film, and action scenes burst with creativity.
Derrickson, along with co-writers C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts, did a mostly good job telling a story where characters have an individual point of view. I got a kick out of the spiky friendship between Strange and Mordo, and it’s fun watching the contrast between Mordo’s ethical inflexibility and Strange’s dawning realization that existence is much bigger than he anticipated. I also enjoy a big-budget comic book movie teaching that true service and sacrifice can be achieved by rejecting fame and doing good for its own sake. That’s a deeply un-American concept, and I kinda love it.
Yet, while the film isn’t precisely at war with itself, it certainly feels conflicted in places. The MCU puts a big premium in humor, but so many of the films use the same snarky, quippy kind of humor. That fits in with an Iron Man, but here the gags should feel more arch and surreal. Too often, when the jokes do come, they either undercut a genuine moment or land with a thud. Marvel Studios also continues its proud tradition of pissing away decent villains. Mads Mikkelsen, the man who plays a better Hannibal Lecter than the guy who won an Academy Award for the same role, plays a part with sloppy motivations. Kaecilius wants to bring about the destruction of our plane of existence on behalf of another. Then what? We also have a likable and overqualified Rachel McAdams as a character who only exists to talk to or about Dr. Strange.
Let’s also take a moment to talk about The Ancient One. Any time you add Tilda Swinton to a film, you automatically have a better film. She’s an appropriately ethereal actor to play this role, and she’s entertaining, soft-spoken, and appropriately authoritative. There have been complaints of whitewashing since the character was originally a wizened Tibetan man. Derrickson was in a tough position here. A wise Asian teacher is one of the original stereotypes, so that ain’t gonna fly. He considered casting an Asian woman, but then there were concerns about a Dragon Lady stereotype. The end result was a white woman with a lilting Irish accent, which isn’t bad, per se. Credit should be given to Derrickson, Cargill, and Spaihts for recognizing a racist trope and trying to take positive steps. I’m just happy that a major studio is paying attention to this stuff, and it proves again just how progressive Marvel really can be.
Ultimately, Doctor Strange isn’t quite the triumphant step forwards that Marvel Studios was going for. While it’s not in the top 5 of the MCU, it’s still a witty and energetic film that gives us something new. Yet as much as I’m already predisposed to be in the tank for the MCU, I have to admit that there’s some magic lacking here.
*I know, it technically began in 1939 with Timely Publications and a little later with the famous comic cover of Captain America socking Hitler right in the kisser.
**As you might know, Ditko is a big, big fan of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. I was desperately hoping that Dr. Strange would ultimately refuse to save the multiverse in order to punish people for their lack of productive achievement. Now that I think about it, ethical objectivism gets into a degree of moral absolutism, and we see a bit of that with Mordo. Hmm…
***This was more common than you might think. Read Sean Howe’s excellent book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and you’ll see writers dropping acid while planning out stories, which actually explains a lot.