Doctor Strange: Or How I Learned to Love Superhero Movies I Don’t Know Anything About
I'm not well versed in comic books. I know just enough, I think, to get by. Namely the Christ-like mythology of Batman and Superman. Anything I don’t know I’ll learn soon enough, having it explained to me after being befuddled by the latest comic book movie post-script scene.
I feel like I should preface this before each comic book movie I talk about. It’s not because I don’t care. Well, that’s starting to be the case, but we’ll get to that later. It’s mostly because I didn't grow up reading these stories.
Which brings us to Doctor Strange and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I know next-to-nothing of this latest MCU superhero. To me, he’s just the latest caped man who moves his hands in mystical ways and triumphantly drops to the ground in three point landing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It actually frees me of being weighted by comparing this film, directed by Scott Derrickson and lead by Benedict Cumberbatch, to the source material. It’s actually how I came into the first Iron Man movie. I had no idea who Iron Man was as a character. But Marvel Studio’s first cinematic outing turned out to be my favorite superhero movie of that year. Which is saying a lot, considering the competition.
Let’s forget for a second about the clunky, CGI-heavy finale; for the most part, Iron Man made Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark into a three-dimensional character. What I found fascinating was how director Jon Favreau brought together actors like Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow and tackled elements of this summer blockbuster like an independent movie. Take a look at the behind-the-scenes footage on the Iron Man Blu-ray to see the rehearsal footage, showing the actors working through various scenes. This, to me at least, showed just how much care went into the “smaller” moments of film like this. It showed promise.
Taking a character like Tony Stark/Iron Man and making me absolutely care about him, with no prior knowledge of his comic book history, was an achievement. What Marvel Studios have done since then is questionable to me. To keep it short, I’ll say I’ve grown mostly tired of not just the Marvel machine, but of the entire superhero-obsessed culture we’re living in. The spark Marvel has shown in Iron Man faded, lost amongst the noise of comic book mythology and CGI-heavy carnage. Not to say it was completely gone. I did see some brilliance in The Avengers, The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. But, for the most part, the monotony of the MCU has gotten to me.
With the release of Doctor Strange, I expected the same old song and dance. Cutting to the chase, a lot of what we see in Doctor Strange is what we’ve seen before in not just a Marvel movie, but in any superhero origin story being produced today. What sets it apart, though, is just how dedicated it is to its world and how visually inventive it turns out to be. Sure, we probably won’t see the small-scale attention to the craft of acting like we saw in Iron Man, but what we get instead is something just as refreshing for the genre.
Knowing what little I do, I did latch on to what they attempted to do with the character of Dr. Stephen Strange. Like any origin story, you get to know the flawed pre-hero, and in Doctor Strange, we get to know Strange as a brilliant, cocky, wealthy, Stark-like figure. What the movie fails at in this regard is just what Strange’s motives and beliefs are. Later on, we see him dealing with the film’s central theme/threat from the villain and the ticking clock of mortality. In the little time we see Strange, pre-cloak hero, we see him deal with his brash egotism. It’s not until the movie pushes its overarching theme that it decides that Strange needs to have an opinion on the matter. That’s not to say Cumberbatch doesn’t infuse Strange with enough pathos to make you emotionally invested, however. What I found interesting was just how reminiscent Strange’s path was to Tony Stark’s in the first Iron Man. A playboy with tools, in this case Strange’s hands, who decides to use them for good rather than selfish means. I don’t think any other Marvel film has approached this theme as well as Doctor Strange.
As is Marvel’s style, some of the best actors alive try not to look ridiculous running around in irrational garb. Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen are the key players in the mystical, dimension-hopping world Strange finds himself in. After an accident leaves Dr. Strange’s hands a trembling mess, he meets with Swinton’s The Ancient One and Ejiofor’s Mordo to try and repair his body. The Ancient One advises Strange to channel his spirit to heal his body. We’re then tossed into some of the best on-screen visuals produced for a Hollywood blockbuster I’ve ever seen.
In the best set piece, Strange and Mordo battle with Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) and his cohorts while running through the streets of New York City. What starts as a foot chase, escalates when buildings begin to bend and fold on themselves. M. C. Escher-levels of plane manipulation, calling back to Nolan's Inception. It's a striking scene, heightened by 3D. Normally, I despise 3D, but I don't regret giving it another shot with this film. With the New York City sequence as well as one in which Strange bounces from dimension to dimension in a nightmarish scene reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Enter The Void, the 3D version is well worth investing in.
Doctor Strange doesn't hesitate to continually reference the aforementioned Inception. Love it or hate it, Inception has turned out to be one of the most influential films of the last decade. It's never more clear then when Strange fights a gaggle of baddies in a hallway that begins to rotate and bend, bringing to mind Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s now iconic, beautifully choreographed action scene. Not stopping there, Derrickson manages to evoke The Matrix Trilogy, visually from a Deus Ex Machina-like confrontation and declaratively with its mind-body-spirit, hero-awakening philosophy. Although, in The Matrix Trilogy, the Wachowskis were a lot more nuanced in weaving their existential beliefs in those blockbusters. Doctor Strange makes things almost painfully too apparent with its beliefs through scenes wracked with exposition.
While the film ultimately amounts to these superhuman beings dealing with mortality, which is actually as close to bold as Marvel Studio gets, it does stumble to get there. As I mentioned before, Strange goes from battling his ego to drastically shifting to dealing with his own existence. The film could've delved more into the villain’s backstory, which is par for the course with the MCU.
With all of its faults, Doctor Strange is a worthwhile effort from Marvel Studios. While it doesn't reach the highs of its predecessors, it manages to invest just enough into its characters, themes and visuals to entertain a comic book layman like myself.