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Another season, another Marvel movie- like the cleaning of a house, it ever ends. That’s not a criticism of Marvel’s machinery of success or even their latest outing, just a simple statement of fact. The Marvel Studios formula and structure are such an ingrained success at this point it seems like they’ll persist through the national zeitgeist and media frontier that initially spawned it to become a pop cultural institution of eternity. This makes reviewing their films a bit of a tricky business.
The fact that a Marvel movie is good is, at this point, something of a given. Every Marvel movie out there is going to be at least enjoyable and will probably be the flavor of the month for about a week or two, but the bigger question now is whether or not they’ll actually persist. Iron Man and Captain America have graduated beyond franchises to cultural touchstones while Thor and Hawkeye still struggle for relevance. So how does Dr. Strange stack up against its Marvel brethren? It’s alright.
For the non-fans in my audience, Dr. Strange is about a surgeon named Dr. Stephen Strange who suffers a terrible accident that costs him the precision use of his hands. With no hope to be found in Western medicine, Strange travels to the mystic orient (we’ll get back to that point) and discovers the Ancient One, an immortal wizard that defends the Earth from mystical/extra-dimensional threats.
Strange joins the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton, and begins to learn magic himself, just in time to help defend against the forces of the Ancient One’s eternal enemy; the dread Dormammu, a powerful cosmic entity from beyond time and space.
Outwardly the most similar point of comparison in the Marvel canon is Iron Man. They’re both movies about bearded experts who are dicks but suffer a debilitating injury. That’s really all surface, on a deeper thematic level the two are very different and even structurally the inciting incident is the only thing that’s really similar.
Where Tony Stark was shattered by his own creation, calling into question the legacy he’s left for the world and forcing him to build a new one in time for Act 2, Dr. Strange is much more about ego and control. The two are both men who use rampant ego to cover for their insecurity, the difference is the insecurity they’re seeking to mask.
For Dr. Strange, his whole character is defined by his doubt- doubt in himself, in people, in the idea of a caring or fair universe. That uncertainty translates into a controlling arrogance, a belief he can bend reality to his whim by sheer willpower and skill alone.
As such, his emotional journey is about learning to give up control, entrusting himself and his fate to those around him and the will of the Gods, accepting that no matter how much magic or science he’s mastered he can’t control everything.
This means that most of Strange’s journey is confined to Kamar-Taj, the Ancient One’s compound where he trains among fellow apprentices under the tutelage of the Ancient One along with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo and Benedict Wong’s Wong. Going back to the Iron Man comparison, this basically makes the film’s whole second act the “building the suit in a cave with a box of scraps” sequence. However, much like Iron Man and Ant-Man, the film’s 2 closest predecessors, this is actually where the film really shines.
I’ll talk about the flip side of this in a bit but where Dr. Strange absolutely excels is exploring its mystical reality, both in visuals and concepts. Any scene where they get to show off portals or astral projection or alternate realities is just the coolest. Marvel’s secret weapon has always been its visual design department, and they have outdone themselves this time.
You’ve already seen a lot of the big, showy, Inception style visuals in the trailers but some of the craziest stuff is yet to come. These sequences naturally extend to the fight scenes with Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, a disciple of Dormammu, but that’s where things get tricky.
See, while Dr. Strange features stunning, trippy visuals the likes of which you’ve never seen, all those visuals are hung on a group of shockingly dry and unengaging characters. Strange is the most fleshed out and even with the trademarked Marvel snark he’s still not very engaging. The Ancient One is a cipher wrapped in a fortune cookie, Mordo is just biding his time for the sequel, Mikkelsen’s not given anything of substance to get up to, and Wong is too absent from the film to really get a read on.
Also, Rachel McAdams is in the movie but just barely, playing a very downgraded version of the comic character Night Nurse. There’s another version of Night Nurse in the Marvel Netflix shows right now played by Rosario Dawson and inviting comparison between the two was profoundly unwise.
This has the curious effect of rendering Dr. Strange a kind of unique entity in the MCU- it’s the first time the world of the film is more interesting than the characters we’re saddled with. The closest we’ve come to this previously was Thor: Dark World but that still had Loki to buoy the film, but by the same token the mythos of Dr. Strange is much richer and more engaging than that featured in Dark World.
Speaking of rankings, I’d still consider Dr. Strange well above most of phase 2 as it manages to avoid a lot of Marvel formula problems. There’s no ticking clock/floating death machine for the finale, no legion of disposable henchmen, and the film’s universe is rich and engaging throughout rather than phase 2’s issues with a weak third act. Things do go wrong in other areas.
It’s impossible to talk about Dr. Strange without addressing the twin elephants in the room- in the original comics both Dr. Strange and the Ancient One were Asian character. Strange was intended as an Asian character by creator Steve Ditko and, though he downplayed that aspect at an editorial request, later artists would still pay homage to his intent. More pointedly, the Ancient One and his sanctum of Kamar-Taj were both Tibetan in the comics.
I understand the business reason for changing the location to Nepal- Chinese censors are very touchy about depictions of Tibet, so Marvel was always going to have to change that, but there’s literally no reason they couldn’t have gone with a Nepali actress for the Ancient One. Tilda Swinton does a solid job but her whitewashing is particularly egregious, and it’s not as if the film ever tries to make up for it in a meaningful way.
Another issue is the internal Orientalism of the premise. For the unfamiliar, the idea of the “mystic orient” full of more enlightened “Eastern medicine” is all grounded in some exceedingly racist beliefs and traditions that are all lumped together through the concept of Orientalism, a concept Dr. Strange sadly embraces. There are some attempts to make the sanctum of Kamar-Taj more of a new age multi-cultural commune with the diversity of Strange, Mordo, and Wong, but the film is still draped in orientalist cues and iconography.
Similarly the film tries to dodge the issue of being a story about a white man coming to a foreign land and mastering their local culture to ridiculous levels, the white savior narrative. They show a lot of the training and hard work it takes for Strange to master simple spells and even at the end his victory comes more from sly cleverness and acceptance rather than mystical skill, but he’s still afforded undo ability. What’s more, swapping in Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One just ends up making HER the White Savior of the story, which is hardly an improvement.
Even with its racist undertones and problematic structure I am inclined towards leniency with Dr. Strange, but I’m also aware that’s not going to be a universal response. By the same token, however, I’m not really sure there are universal responses to Marvel films anymore. Joe Popcorn will probably enjoy it for a week or so before moving on, diehard fans will ingest the Easter Eggs and continuity and begin speculation on Strange’s role going forward, and people who don’t like Marvel movies aren’t joining that bandwagon here at #14.
If there’s a group left out in the cold here, it’s Asian geeks, who are way overdue for their own hero from the studio that can’t seem to fail. I mean, Marvel Phase 3 seems dedicated to broadening their diversity with heroes like Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Ghost Rider but they can’t find a place for Asian superheroes beyond “sidekick?”
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