Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

Oops. This is the wrong Dr. Strange...

Oops. This is the wrong Dr. Strange…

I saw Dr. Strange over the weekend. While I can’t say I was excited about its prospects, I was certainly curious about the treatment this first-rate-but-third-string character would receive, especially considering that in tone and concept, Dr. Strange inhabits a very different part of the Marvel Universe than the Avengers. While the mysterious sorcerer from Bleecker Street has a long history of crossing over with his car-tossing, face-punching friends and foes in colorful tights, he is comfortably settled at the weird nexus of mysticism, horror, and psychedelic introspection that we’ve seen almost no hint of in the MCU. Superhero comics are inherently genre-mixing, and are almost uniquely capable of handling this blend of mood and theme of very distinct genres without feeling absurd or schizophrenic, but I was doubtful whether this quality would translate to the big screen (or, at least, whether Hollywood would allow it to translate). But Marvel Studios had accomplished so much amid the ruins of the larger studios failures, and with Infinity War looming on the horizon, they needed to stake out this uncharted region of their universe in a big way. Could they pull through?

In short, the answer was a resounding ‘no.’ Despite the solid acting and gorgeous special effects, Doctor Strange left me with overwhelming feelings of indifference.

Perhaps the worst thing I can say about it is that the special effects were a total failure in all the ways that matter. The strange thing about this feeling is that it was actually worth the extra money for the IMAX 3D, one of the few movies I’ve ever felt that way about. But dazzling SFX cannot exist for their own sake, they must operate in support of the story. In Dr. Strange, they overshadowed the story. Too frequently I thought that this or that effect was so much cooler than the scene itself, and felt my mind wandering to how they could have employed it in service of a better piece of fiction. So, while it was extremely impressive visually, the film utterly failed to kindle my imagination. 

The movie’s storytelling flaws can be encompassed in two general points: First, it adhered to the Marvel movie formula very closely, so there were no surprises and few interesting nuances, nothing which made the stakes feel important or made the characters worth caring about. Second, it lacked the distinctive qualities of Dr. Strange stories, giving us instead a kung fu action movie with a confused veneer of science-mysticism (even more clumsily and less satisfyingly handled than in the Thor movies).

On the first flaw, much has already been said that I needn’t repeat here. If you’ve seen the other Marvel movies that don’t have Captain America in their titles, you know the formula by heart, even if you haven’t identified it as such. It still works in the sense that the movie remains coherent, but it’s become so trite that you always know what’s coming next, and the emotional strings it tries to pull are so threadbare that now they barely elicit a reaction. I was able to predict within 2-3 minutes when the main character’s benefactor/driving influence was going to be killed, delivering a new internal revelation and spurring the hero on to a great sacrifice and improbable victory. And when it happened, I felt absolutely nothing, because that’s just what we do here now. In the words of Stan Lee, ’nuff said.

The film’s really great failing was its distinct lack of Dr. Strange-ness. I was never a dedicated reader of the Dr. Strange comics, though I always found him a very compelling supporting character. I think my first exposure to him on the printed page was in Infinity Gauntlet (very appropriate, considering the groundwork this film was supposed to lay towards the movie adaptation of that excellent story), and I was enthralled enough to seek out some of the earlier issues of his eponymous series, and eventually, reprints of his first appearances in Strange Tales, under the expert hand of creator Steve Ditko.

As anyone can tell you whose opinion about comics matters, those early Dr. Strange stories were master class stuff, a groundbreaking re-injection of the esoteric occult and the horror elements that got the comic publishers into so much trouble in the ’50s back into the superheroics of the Silver Age. Dr. Strange was not the first comic book mystic by any means, but he stood out from a background of cartoonish, cardboard cutouts. Strange was a sorcerer, not a magician: he summoned his powers from unspeakable, incomprehensible entities and untameable cosmic forces. His primary patrons were a triad of grotesque and utterly alien gods (the Vishanti) whose sympathies with humanity were not always clear and constant. Not infrequently, he drew power (as in the spells Crimson Bands of Cyttorak or the Flames of the Faltine) from his deadliest enemies, or staked everything on cursed tomes and tainted artifacts like the Darkhold, walking a razor’s edge between good and evil that imperiled his life and his soul. The art and dialogue of these stories was darkly moody and so evocative that some readers actually wondered if Mr. Ditko was secretly a master of the occult (amusing, considering Ditko is an Objectivist). Ditko’s Dr. Strange is equally at home squaring off against costumed villains as he is searching for secrets in decrepit, candle-lit libraries. He is a hero versatile enough to confront rogue sorcerers, vampires, Asgardian sex witches, and planet-eating space giants.

Well, the character on offering from Marvel Studios and Benedict Cumberbatch is not that Dr. Strange. The film version is essentially the mystical equivalent of Tony Stark: hyper-intelligent, quippy, and a fast expert at almost everything he sets his hand to. The movie goes through the motions showing his early inability to master even basic magical techniques, but this early remedial stage is quickly conquered, and the audience is presented with an inexplicable “chosen one” who is not only suddenly capable of spells that defied even the most dedicated masters before him, but comfortably in command of hideously powerful relics like the Eye of Agamotto. Needless to say, this transition feels cheap and entirely unearned, and his victorious confrontation with the allegedly all-powerful Dormammu feels forced and unbelievable as a consequence. Worst of all, we do not even once hear him utter a shocked, “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!”–instead, we get a Beyonce joke. PopCult is stronger than occult, I guess.

Closely related to this failure at producing a Dr. Strange worthy of the source material, the movie does almost nothing, despite promises to the contrary, to set up Infinity War. The sole significant detail is the revelation of the Eye of Agamotto as the Time Gem. (There is also a throwaway mention of the Living Tribunal, but the context is extremely disappointing.) There is no implication of imminent cosmic disaster, no hint of Thanos’s plot, and no exploration of the nature of the Infinity Gems. I found this exceedingly odd, as this would seem like the perfect movie to delve into all that. Nevertheless, there are several references to the other movies, including a mention of War Machine’s spinal injury, a shot of Avengers Tower in the New York skyline, and the mid-credit teaser, but none of them are relevant to the story. They are tips of the hat, and nothing more.

To bring an overly long movie review to a close, I will say, C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Dr. Strange. Marvel achieved a spectacular looking and well-acted movie that nonetheless felt hollow and delivered nothing memorable. This missed opportunity sets Dr. Strange in the bottom third (but not the very bottom) of all Marvel movies.

I should note that my opinion of this film was not jaded by too high expectations. Besides not being a big Dr. Strange fan, this was coming off the heels of Captain America: Civil War, which was almost certainly the finest superhero movie ever made, so my expectations were very mildIf it was only as good as, say, Iron Man 3 or the original Thor, I would have been satisfied. Instead, we got something on par (or perhaps even inferior to) Ant-Man, and only a little better than Thor: The Dark World. Despite the after-credits teaser setting up a sequel, I do not expect Dr. Strange to become a franchise. Marvel will have to anchor the next phase of its cinematic universe on a firmer foundation.

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