Doctor Strange is yet another case of Marvel’s tried-and-true formula scaffolding a daring and visually arresting foray into one of its more esoteric properties.
Like many Marvel origin stories, Doctor Strange is about self-renewal. A A talented but flawed protagonist experiences a life crisis that forces them to confront their hubris and in doing so reforges them into an unlikely hero. Iron Man was like this. So was Thor and to a lesser extent, Ant-Man. It’s a formula that has produced characters like Han Solo and Bilbo Baggins. And as far as origin stories go, you can do far worse than with a dependable formula for your hero’s inception.
Benedict Cumberbatch inhabits the role of brilliant neurosurgeon turned sorcerer Stephen Strange with the arrogant aplomb that carried him to fame in Sherlock. Save for the occasional missteps in his accent, he carries the film with the thespian certitude of one who has lived in the character’s brainspace for a long time.
Strange, the fast-car driving, expensive watch-wearing douche-doctor, gets into a car accident that renders the tools of his delicate trade – his hands – useless. During his quixotic quest for a cure, he stumbles across a possible panacea – but it takes him down a very different path, one that leads to the world of mysticism, far removed from the material world that he is used to. And, of course, he gets some character development.
By now, citing the ways in which Doctor Strange ticks off the checklist of Marvel movie qualities is getting old hat. The quips feature in spades. Extradimensional antagonists defeated by cleverness and plot-hacks. A constant self-awareness of the narrative’s outlandish comic book origins. Trope-blind antagonists.
On that last point, Marvel really needs to up its villain game. Antagonists (barring Loki and a handful of other compelling figures) have often been the weakest part of the Marvel formula. While they’re always being motivated by something, those motivations are often flimsily constructed and one-dimensional. It’s like the Marvel writers consulted the manual on how to write compelling villains and interpreted it in too literal a fashion.
Baddie Kaecilius, for example, is motivated by eternal life – and it’s hinted that he does what he does motivated by some personal tragedy. But – not only does he kill and maim in that quest to make us all eternal thralls to a giant ravenous dark being from outside spacetime (and – I mean – an eternity of torment is not preferable to a non-eternity of the status quo, guys) he also gets dark smouldering circles around his eyes. Maybe that should set off alarm bells that you’re maybe not one of the good guys?
The movie also sets up another big antagonist in the Doctor Strange continuity, and his motivations for becoming the way he is are also, in a word, risible. It’s like antagonists in the Marvel Universe don’t understand the concept of compromise. It’s a very Dubyaesque approach to ethics and morality.
Besides that, however, the film is one of the most visually interesting Marvel films to date, just because it uses psychedelia and Inception-like visuals as its main bread-and-butter to paint a world of sorcery that is ties in intimately to notions of the Marvel multiverse. Stranges’ own psychedelic trip into the multiverse is one of the film’s best sequences – both awe-inspiring and somewhat self-aware at its own ridiculousness at the same time.
One other thing Doctor Strange has been accused of is whitewashing and white savior tropes. Stephen Strange, the white man, comes to Nepal and becomes its most gifted practitioner, and saves the world from the hubris of its own sorcerous protectors. Now, while I sympathise with the sentiment that there should be more Asian representation in film, I don’t really see how the film might have done it better.
In a sense, the film is caught in a bind because it is trying to modernise what is essentially an old, somewhat racist comic series that emerged in a less enlightened time. I applaud the filmmaker’s decision to make the lodge of sorcerers into what seems to be a multiethnic enclave that just happens to be situated in Kathmandu. In that context, it is sensible to make the Ancient One someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypical mould of an elder of such an institution – a Celtic woman instead of the original depiction of an old Nepalese dude with a flowing beard, which might be its own ethnic stereotype.
And the decision to make the lodge multi-ethnic takes the teeth out of the white-savior charge, because the lodge is no longer a feckless organisation that needs saving from the outside.
Whitewashing is most egregious when white actors are used to tell uniquely Asian stories – such as when Scarlett Johansson is cast as the Major in the very Asian Ghost in the Shell, or Emma Stone is cast as a half-Asian woman in Aloha. In this case, though, Doctor Strange the movie is no longer telling a particularly Asian story – because to make the sorcerer’s lodge an Asian institution is to exoticise it.
And with that expostulation on a storm on a teacup, I conclude with the general observation that Marvel films, while formulaic on story beats, have one of the most creative and daring premises – something that is only made possible by the brand that they have so painstakingly built with their dependability.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 eyes of Agamotto