“Dormammu! I’ve come to bargain!”

Back in my Ant-Man review I had some pretty harsh things to say about Ant-Man as a superhero concept. But you shouldn’t take that to mean that I don’t like the character. To tell the truth, I’ve always found Hank Pym to be oddly compelling. There’s something about the guy who is good but will never be the best and the gnawing insecurity that brings that I think a lot of writers can empathise with.

Conversely, for this review I re-read some classic Doctor Strange stories and have had to come to terms with something deeply troubling about myself.

I, straight up, do not like Doctor Strange.

I love silver age Marvel comics. I love the aesthetic, the corny jokes, the ridiculous villain names, the artwork, the snarky editorial captions from Stan Lee, all of it. It be my jam. But my God, reading Doctor Strange is a slog.

And I think my issue with him is this; Doctor Strange is a character who rewards bad writing. Characters should challenge their writers. Superman and Captain America challenge their writers to portray them as morally pure and incorruptible while still being human and relateable. Spider-man is a challenge because he requires funny dialogue. Wolverine is a challenge because he requires almost no dialogue.

But Doctor Strange’s whole schtick requires him to recite turgid, purple prose at every problem he comes across and it is just such a grind. Even a phrase of such magnificent silliness as “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” starts to lose its appeal after the twentieth time reading it. But ultimately, it comes down to this: Wizards should not be main characters.

Glad you brought him up, we shall return to him presently.

When you have a main character who is a wizard it is almost impossible to generate real drama. So many Doctor Strange stories boil down to this:

EVIL WIZARD: I will do this bad magic thing!

DR STRANGE: I will cast a spell that stops you from doing this bad magic thing!

EVIL WIZARD: Aha! I have cast a spell that means your spell doesn’t work!

DR STRANGE: But I use my magic forcefield to block your spell!

EVIL WIZARD: But my spell is too powerful for your forcefield!

DR STRANGE: Nuh uh! My forcefield has infinity power!

And then the bell sounds and they have to go back to class. It’s basically the same problem as technobabble in bad episodes of Star Trek; artificial problems solved by an artificial solution. It’s never concretely stated what Strange’s magic can and cannot do, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t just pull a random spell out of his ass to deal with whatever the problem is. It’s why wizards are usually relegated to supporting roles. We follow Arthur and Frodo, not Merlin and Gandalf. Harry Potter gets around this problem by clearly establishing the rules of how magic works in its universe. Yes, Harry can use magic, but he never uses a spell that we don’t see him learn in class. So the audience is never in doubt as to his abilities and what the real odds are in any given confrontation.

Strange can be great when used as a supporting character, a kind of consultant brought in to help other characters when they run afoul of the supernatural. But as a lead character he just does not work for me. Can the second live-action Doctor Strange movie change my mind? Oh yes. I said “second”.

You have questions.
1) Yes, it’s a real movie.
2) No, it’s not a porno.
3) Yes, that’s the legendary Jessica Walter, star of Arrested Development and Archer.
4) No, it’s really not a porno.
5) It’s terrible, but also wonderful.

Let’s take a look.

In a dusty, mystic library, a gang of hooded flunkies break in, decapitate the librarian and tear a page out of one of the books (good thing they killed the dude first because that’s the kind of thing that sends a librarian into an unstoppable super-saiyan rage). These guys are the Zealots, and they are lead by Kaecilius, who could not have a kaecillier name and who is played by Mads Mikklesen who bears an uncanny resemblance to my former therapist. They’re confronted by a mysterious figure in a yellow robe who warns them that the spell they’ve taken is hella dangerous and Kaecillius and the zealots flee through a portal, followed by the figure in yellow. They end up in London where the figure in yellow casts a spell that causes London to go all trippy.

So I think this is definitely the point where people in Marvel started to take the “Yeah the movies are fine but they look kinda blah.” criticism to heart. Personally, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Captain America  is a wonderfully handsome movie and whatever it’s other faults The Dark World is absolutely sumptuous but here we really see Marvel attempting to create something absolutely visually stunning (and just wait till we get to Guardians Vol 2). Kaecilius and the zealots escape and the figure removes its hood to reveal Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. She walks through the streets of London attracting curious stares from passers by, presumably mesmerised like I am by that massive vein at the back of her head.

The Fremen cal it “Shai-Hulud”, the old man of the desert.

Okay, so stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s this guy, right? Rich, brilliant, snarky and sarcastic but genuinely talented and a prodigy in his field. And he has the potential to be something great but he only cars about money fame and his own ego. And there’s this woman in his life who believes that there’s goodness in him and secretly has feelings for him. Then, after a brush with death forces him to reassess his priorities, he uses his gifts to become a hero for the whole world. What’s that? You have heard that one before? Then…why didn’t you stop me?

“I…I trusted you.”

My issue is not really how blatantly Doctor Strange is an almost beat-for-beat remake of Iron Man, it’s that it’s not even a particularly good or interesting one. Apart from the visuals (and that’s not nothing, granted) it does everything Iron Man did and just ever so slightly worse.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Junior are both excellent actors and Holmseses and honestly, if you threw both of them into a pit with some soliloquies and told them that only the one who acted best got to keep their legs (what? How do you de-stress after a long week?) I don’t know who would win. But I do know this; Downey as Tony Stark is Downey giving a hundred per cent and Cumberbatch as Strange is giving around forty five. And Cumberbatch at 45% is still, like, a bajillion Rob Schneiders. He’s not bad, but he’s only fine here. Anyway, hot-shot surgeon Doctor Steven Strange is called away from hot-shot surgery by his fellow doctor and former ugly-bumper Christine (Rachel McAdams) to save the life of another patient who is already dead. Ironically, Rachel McAdams was originally Jon Favreau’s first choice to play Pepper Potts in Iron Man and she turned it downAnd now eight years later, here she is playing Pepper Potts in Iron Man. Wait. Is that irony? Or is it just the same thing? Whatever, Christine asks Steven if he won’t consider working for her full time and he’s all “Ugh. Poors.”

Driving to a conference convened to tell him how awesome he is, Strange talks to his assistant by phone about prospective patients including an Air Force colonel who’s suffered a spinal injury following an accident in an experimental flying mech suit.

So let’s see if we can solve this once and for all. Back in the Winter Soldier review I dinged that movie for a continuity blooper because Steven Strange is listed as a potential HYDRA threat even though this scene with Steven and his assistant seems (to me at least) to definitively date-stamp this move as taking place after Captain America 3 since this would be a clear reference to Rhodey’s injuries at the end of the airport battle. People responded in the comments with two contradictory defences.

1)      Steven Strange was already the Sorcerer Supreme at the time of Winter Soldier. The pilot with the busted back is not actually Rhodey but the test pilot for Hammer industries who got twisted in half all the way back in Iron Man 2.

“I just want to state for the record, the pilot survived.”

Thereby dating the early scenes of Doctor Strange not in 2016 but sometime around 2010.

2)      Doctor Strange does indeed begin immediately after Civil War and Rhodey is indeed the patient being discussed.  Steven Strange was listed as a threat to HYDRA because he was a highly respected surgeon, not because he was a nearly omnipotent wizard superhero.

Let’s deal with 1 first. This site actually makes the case that the crippled pilot had to be someone other than Rhodey because in Doctor Strange he’s referred to as a marine whereas we all know that Rhodey is in the Air Force as well as our thoughts and prayers.

Get well soon, buddy.

I heard the “Pilot was a marine” line a couple of times on this blog too and it surprised me because, y’know, it’s totally not true.

I’ll admit, I do kinda wish we could push back the timeline to around the time of Iron Man 2 because I find it a bit more plausible that it takes a man six years rather than six months to become a master wizard but unfortunately…

The MCU wiki’s timeline clearly places Strange’s accident in 2016, after Civil War. 

“Uh, Mouse?”

So you can either believe that this series of movies that pretty much invented tightly integrated inter-movie continuity was talking about some other Air Force Colonel who busted his back while flying around in an experimental suit of power armour (that old stock character) or we can just accept that it’s exactly who you think it is.

“Mouse?”

“What SMOWE? I’m busy being right on the internet.”

“It’s just, the MCU timeline does place Strange’s accident in 2016, but before the battle at the airport. It couldn’t be Rhodey he’s talking about because Rhodey wasn’t injured yet.”

“…what?”

No. No, no, no. Those devious bastards! they covered their tracks by messing with the timeline! He has to be talking about Rhodey, he has to! Goddamn it Marvel just admit you screwed up the continuity so I can get on with my life! I NEED THIS!

“Oh for the love of…JUST LET IT GO!”

Urrrrrggh. Okay, look, regardless. Either the timeline is right and the crash took place in 2016 and he was talking about some other Air Force Colonel who suffered a back injury in a suit of experimental armour who’s friends with Tony Stark and named James Rhodes OR I’m right in which case it was still 2016. Either way, he was not yet a sorcerer during Winter Soldier.  That just leaves explanation 2 which simply doesn’t work.

Sitwell was talking to Captain America about threats to HYDRA and from context it was clear that “Steven Strange” was a name that Cap was already expected to be familiar with. If he’s the superhero community’s consultant wizard that makes sense. If he’s a random civilian douchebro, it does not. Entitled New York douchebros are not a threat to fascist regimes.

Okay, well, not intentionally. In summation, I stand by my statement of “Marvel, ya done goofed.”

Suddenly, Steven hits another car and goes skidding into a river. He suffers brutal injuries and wakes up in hospital, barely alive and with his hands looking like bits of ham that were dropped on a pair of porcupines. It’s all very shocking, no doubt, but unfortunately I was raised on a steady diet of the most hardcore road safety ads in the English speaking world, and am now numb inside.

Please. In Ireland we used to get shit like this before Teletubbies came on.

So Steven’s suffered irreversible nerve damage and can’t be trusted to operate on brains anymore, or indeed, cut deli meat. Facing a life of poverty and squalor as a lecturer at Harvard medical or a hospital consultant, Steven fiercely throws himself into finding a cure, squandering his fortune on experimental treatments and slowly alienating all his friends and colleagues until even Christine abandons him rather than put up with any more of his venomous spleen. During physical therapy he demands to know of his physical therapist (whom he has affectionately nicknamed “Bachelor’s Degree”) if he has ever seen someone recover from the kind of nerve damage Steven Strange has. The therapist says that yes, he has, and Steven is all “Yeah? Prove it, you moron.” and the therapist is all “Well, showing you that file would be a gross breach of that patient’s privacy but on the other hand, the shock of being wrong might actually kill you so let’s go get that file.”

So Steven tracks down this patient, a guy named Pangborn, who was unable to walk due to a spinal injury and finds him playing basketball. Pangborn actually knows who Strange is, saying that he tried to get an appointment with him but that Strange wouldn’t see him. Steven says that he couldn’t operate on Pangborn because his condition was irreversible and we’re supposed to see that as another example of how much of an asshole Steven is but…honestly? I’m kinda with Steven here. I mean, even minor surgery carries with it considerable risks from infection, accidents, bad reaction to anaesthesia etc. Performing surgery on someone when you think there is literally no hope of improving their condition isn’t kindness, it’s putting a patient in danger for no reason. Anyway, Steven asks how Pangborn can possibly be up and about and chillin’ and maxin’ relaxin’ all cool and shootin’ some b-ball’ out beside the school. Pangborn says that he’d exhausted all hopes in…ugh…Western Medicine

…and ended up in Nepal because where else would someone in a wheelchair go other than the Himalayas? He says that he joined a spiritual community called Kamar-Taj and their leader, The Ancient One helped him to walk again. Having tried everything that…ugh… Western Medicine

…has to offer, Steven scrapes together his last few dollars and heads to Nepal. He meets a man named Mordo, (Chwietel Ejifor) who saves him from some muggers and takes him to Kamar-Taj to meet the Ancient One. At first, Steven thinks the Ancient One is some kind of scientist running a cutting edge research lab far away from the prying eyes of the regulators. But she starts talking about chakras and crystals and energies and he gives her the full Dawkins, saying that he doesn’t believe in fairy tales about the power of belief.

And then she punches his soul so hard he goes straight to Bahia.

 

“Far out, man.”

Arriving back with his concept of the physical universe irreparably shattered, Strange begs her to teach him.

“Newp.”

And, oh my word, I love that the Ancient One expanded Steven’s consciousness beyond anything he thought possible and brought him to the very precipice of madness for no other reason than that he was being a dick and she wanted to fuck with him.

Eventually Mordo convinces her to let Steven stay in Kamar-Taj and he begins training. So, I’ll say this in the movie’s favour. It avoids the problem I mentioned in the comics by playing fair with what Steven can cannot do. We see him learning different spells, we’re told how they work. There’s no techno-babble wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey, hocus pocus. On the other hand, did we really need another origin story?

Anyone here remember Blade? Specifically, do you remember how Blade shows up in the first scene of that movie and he’s already Blade? The movie’s like, “See this guy? He’s Blade. He kills vampires. You’re all caught up, let’s go.” And sure, there’s some lines of dialogue and a few seconds of flashback later on to fill us in on how he became what he is, and that’s all ya need. Especially with a character like Doctor Strange. Know how I’d do it if I had me druthers, (and one day, friends, one day I shall have those druthers. One day it’ll be druther-palooza up in here)? I’d tell the story from the perspective of another character. Maybe Claire Temple or Jessica Jones or Misty Knight. Have them come across some supernatural hoo-poo that they can’t deal with themselves and have them seek out an urban legend by the name of Doctor Strange. Just introduce him as a mysterious wizard who you’re not really sure you can trust. The character’s main appeal is his mystery (that and an admittedly sick Steve Ditko designed costume), the more you explain his backstory the less interesting he becomes.

Speaking of uninteresting characters, Kaecilius and the Zealots perform a ritual in an Orthodox Church using the page they stole from the Ancient One’s library. This causes their eyes to look like they were at an all night hen party and forgot to remove their eye-shadow before falling asleep.

See kids? This is what happens when you don’t wash your contacts.

While studying, Strange meets the librarian of Kamar-Taj, a man named Wong played by Benedict…Wong. Huh. How ’bout that?

“Its the part I was born to play, baby!”

Wong in the comics is Steven Strange’s Asian manservant, a story detail that the producers wisely decided simply wouldn’t fly in 2017. In related news, Marvel have just announced that the Black Panther’s arch-enemy will not in fact be a black man called “Man-Ape”. It’s political correctness gone sane, I tell you!

Wong tells Strange about Kaecilius, that he came to Kamar-Taj looking for healing after he lost his family, how he betrayed the Ancient One and stole a page from the book of Cagliostro, a magic tome related to time. Here’s what I don’t get: All the students in Kamar-Taj are just ordinary people who came seeking enlightenment. So…what’s with Kaecilius’ name?

“Kaecilius? Really? That’s his name?”

“Yes. Mort Kaecilius. He was a dental hygienist. From Scranton, New York.”

Steven continues to study but has difficulty learning how to create portals with his hands. So The Ancient One decides to just strand him Everest where he has to either learn or freeze to death (so, y’know, win-win as far as she’s concerned). Even Mordo, who is all about tough love, thinks she’s gone too far this time.

“Oh God. She’s started killing again!”

But Strange and most of his toes make it back alive and he begins to become ever more adept and powerful, mastering new spells and learning how to project his astral form out of his body so that he can even study while he’s sleeping.

Doctor Strange, seen here reading a…book’s…soul?

Strang asks Mordo just how ancient the Ancient One actually is (and here I thought he was a gentleman) and Mordo says that he only knows that she’s “Celtic, and never talks about her past.” Which must make for some odd introductions.

“Hi! I’m the Ancient One, I’m Celtic, and that’s all yer gettin, see?”

C. Robert Cargill, one of the co-writer’s, stated that the decision was made to change the Ancient One from an elderly Asian man to a Caucasian woman because, whether the Ancient One was an old Asian man, an old Asian woman or a young Asian woman, some negative orienalist stereotype was going to be reinforced regardless so they decided to just side-step the entire issue and bring Wong in to the story to ensure Asian representation. In response to the allegations of whitewashing he said “Asians have been whitewashed and stereotyped in American cinema for over a century and people should be mad or nothing will change. What I did was the lesser of two evils, but it is still an evil.” As a writer I can definitely sympathise, there really are instances where there are no right choices but in this case, I think an Asian Ancient One was the way to go. Good writing can flesh out characters and make them believable and real even if on paper they fall into stereotype.

One night in the library, Steven uses a time reversal spell alongside a magical relic called the Eye Of Agomotto to revert the Book of Calgiostro to its past self, to before Kaecilius ripped the page out. The now restored page tells of “Dormammu” and the “Dark Dimensions”. But before Steven can read anymore, Wong and Mordo burst in and chew him out for his unsanctioned sorcery.

“You want walking brooms? Because THAT’s how you get walking brooms!”

Mordo and Wong decide to tell Steven what they’re really about, the sorcerors defend the Earth from mystic threats. There are three sanctums in New York, Hong Kong and London that maintain a protective shield around the Earth, protecting it from Dormammu, a dark god of near limitless power. Steven is all “I’m out, this has officially gotten stupid I just wanted to stop my hands shakin’ for dick’s sake” when suddenly the London sanctum is attacked by Kaecilius and the Zealots which one day will stop sounding like a psychedelic band from the seventies but not today. Kaecilius blows up the London sacntum which causes an explosion that throws Steven into the New York sanctum. Steven sees the sanctum’s guardian, Nathaniel, get killed by the Zealots and we then get…this…

KAECILIUS: How long have you been at Kamar-Taj Mister…?

STRANGE: Doctor.

KAECILIUS: Mister Doctor?

STRANGE: No. It’s Strange.

KAECILIUS: Maybe. Who am I to judge?

“Movie?”

“Yeah?”

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Oh I’m just practicing some of my material for open mic night.”

“Well practice on your own damn time!”

Kaecilius and Steven battle with spells and Dad jokes, with Steven being completely overmatched until a friendly flying cloak comes to his rescue. The cloak shows Steven a kind of…magic…harness?…that he throws on Caecilius which locks him into a very disturbing position.

I don’t know what you used this for, Nathaniel. And I don’t think I want to.

Kaecilius sets up his stall and explains why he’s chosen to follow Dormammu, because his universe is eternal and beyond time, and that time is the enemy of all living things.

“They say time is the fire in which we burn.”

Kaecilius says that he only wants to save all living things from dying and then, rather hypocritically, one of his minions stabs Steven in the chest. Bleeding and dying, Steven teleports to Christine’s hospital while the cloak beats the ever living shit out of the minion, who’s name is Lucian. As in “I can’t believe it, I’m Lucian to a rug”. Christine desperately works to fix Steven’s achey-breaky-stabbedy-wabbedy heart and hang on, I think I have a screenshot somewhere.

There we go. While that’s going on Steven’s soul battles the soul of the Lucian. Steven wins when Christine has to apply the paddles which causes a burst of energy to pass through him because souls conduct electricity as everyone knows. He actually burns Lucian’s soul into nothing which raises all kinds of unsettling questions. Like…does electricity destroy your soul? Were the Amish right after all? Does anyone who was electrocuted not get to go to the afterlife? That’s…dark.

Strange recovers and he apologises to Christine for being a douche in Act 1. She then let’s him just walk out of there like any doctor would after a patient had just undergone heart surgery and literally died on the table. Returning to the sanctum he finds Lucian’s dead body and The Ancient One and Mordo. The Ancient One is impressed that Steven managed to fight off Caecilius and also that the cloak of levitiation chose him, because that little piece of fabric is an excellent judge of character. She tells him they appear to have an opening for the Master of the New York Sanctum but Steven refuses, saying that he’s a doctor and that he swore an oath to do no harm. He says that he’s just killed a man and that he will, never, ever do that again. I’m always in favour of superheroes who treat the taking of human life with gravity so I’ll give the movie brownie points for this.  The Ancient One tells him that he only became a doctor to save one person; himself. Seeing as it’s time for truth bombs, Steven counters that he’s learned how the Ancient One has kept so young all these years.

Of course!

No, actually, she’s been secretly siphoning energy of Dommamu to keep young. Mordo is appalled, but before they have time to conclusively ascertain  who’s been siphoning power from whom for what purpose Caecilius and the Zealots come back from their smoke break and the three battle them in a mirror dimension version of New York.

Honestly, you spend too long in Times Square this happens without magic.

The Ancient One reveals that she is indeed running on Dormajuice and Kaecilius stabs her and drops her off a skyscraper. Steven and Mordo rush her to the hospital where Christine tries to to save her. Steven sees the Ancient One’s soul leaving her bodt and follows her in his astral form. He tells her she has to go back to her body but she says she’s had a good innings.  She tells Strange that she’s not afraid to die and that death gives life meaning, and that it’s his fear of failure that is holding him back from greatness. She says she never wanted to draw power from the Dark Dimensions, but sometimes you have to break the rules for the greater good. She tells him that he and Mordo will have to work together to defeat Dormammu. Yeah, anyone who’s read the comics knows how that’s going to turn out. She leaves Strange with a final piece of advise “It’s not about you.” And then she vanishes.

Knowing that Kaecilius will be heading for the final sanctum, Strange and Mordo arrive in Hong Kong to find that Kaecilius has already won. The sanctum’s been breached, Wong is dead, and Bahia is bearing down on planet Earth like a Hutt at a buffet. So Steven does to the laws of nature what Twitter did to the laws of civil discourse, reversing time to bring Wong back to life and battling against Kaecilius and the rest of the zealots. It is pretty visually spectacular, I have to admit, with the whole battle taking place as time is reversing around the combatants. But it’s all for naught and it looks like Dormammu is about to come calling. So Steven flies into the Dark Dimension and comes face to shimmering rainbow cloud face with Dormammu…

Doctor Strange defiantly calls out “Dormammu! I’ve come to bargain!”.

Aaaaand gets killed in like a minute.

And then time reverses and Strange appears again.

“Dormammu! I’ve come to bargain!”.

Dead. Again.

“Dormammu…”

Dead.

“Dorm…”

So dead.

Y’see, as Dormammu was moving into the neighbourhood, Steven got him a little housewarming gift of one of the local delicacies: time. A single minute repeated over and over and over and over like a monkey with a miniature cymbal. Dormammu points out that all this means is that Steven will die for an eternity as he can never hope to defeat him. But Steven counters that he doesn’t have to win, he can just lose forever. He offers Dormammu’s freedom in exchange for leaving the Earth in peace.

So, as much as I have ragged on this movie, I do absolutely love this ending. It’s smart, it subverts expectations and for once we have a Marvel movie that’s resolved by the hero out-thinking his opponent rather than out punching him. And it brings Strange’s character arc to a satisfying conclusion, the man who always won because he couldn’t bear to lose wins by being willing to lose forever. Or something. That’s the gist.

Anyway, Strange returns to earth, Kaecilius and the surviving zealots get sucked into the Dark Dimension and Doctor Strange takes up his new position as the Sorceror Supreme of Earth. But Mordo, appalled by the magical hanky-panky Strange and the Ancient One resorted to, leaves to take up a different path…

Bleh. Bleh, I say.

As visually audacious and often stunning as Doctor Strange is, it’s downright maddening how formulaic it is as a story. “Iron Man but with magic and less charm” is the most underwhelming MCU movie so far. A genuinely satisfying and clever ending may send you home with some goodwill towards it, but it’s largely unearned.

Scoring

Adaptation 14/25

Doctor Strange doesn’t need an origin story. He’s a wizard. Everyone knows what a wizard is. Get to the good parts already.

Our Heroic Hero: 17/25

Cumberbatch is an excellent actor but he doesn’t really seem all that engaged. He’s fine, but I’d have to rank him as only the second best actor to ever play Tony Stark. I know what I said.

Our Nefarious Villain: 06/25

 

Our Plucky Sidekicks: 14/25 

Grumble grumble stupid movie knows I can’t resist Chiewetel Ejiofor and his soft-spoken charms grumble grumble Tilda Swinton is actually pretty good grumble grumble…

First Stinger:

We get a nice little scene between Strange and Thor. Strange passive agressively bitches at Thor for bringing Loki back to New York and the Prince of Asagrd enlists Steven’s help to track down Odin.

And the audience went:

Thor-Loki-Strange road-trip? I’m game.

The second stinger:

Mordo tracks down Pangborn and kills him, saying that he’s had it with all these motherfuckin’ sorcerors on this motherfuckin plane of existence.

And the audience went:

Why couldn’t THAT guy have been the villain?

Infinity Gem Count:5

DING! DING! DING!  This movie introduces the Eye of Agomotto, also known as the time stone.

Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?!

That was Stan Lee, reading Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” on the bus.

Hey, what’s Thanos doing?

Thanos is sitting in his chair.

FINAL SCORE: 51%

NEXT UPDATE: 03 August 2017

NEXT TIME: August is “Let’s try to kill Mouse” month here on Unshaved Mouse.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic.”

“I was being stoic.”

Fine, August is “Direct to Video Disney Sequel” month here on Unshaved Mouse. Which, let’s be honest, is basically the same thing.

53 comments

  1. I’m going to be honest here… I haven’t read any of your Marvel reviews past Winter Soldier, because I want to see the actual movies first and I haven’t exactly found the chance to squeeze them into my summer. That said, I do read the lead-in on each one, and you’ve made generally-good points on each…

    Your dissection of wizard-as-protagonist, though, is the first I generally want to engage with. I both agree *and* disagree with it. I’ve become quite a fan of Vertigo comics, which is almost nothing but wizards (and various Gods) and does it rather well, while I think that Harry Potter falls into exactly the “artificial problem solved by an artificial solution” trap you mentioned.

    Why? My reasoning gets a bit scattered here – it always does – but I think it has to do with a story’s *focus*. Drama/suspense is only one of many reasons for a reader/viewer to pick up any given work, and for that matter, not all drama/suspense stems from “(how) will the goodie beat the baddie”? In fact, where Big Two superheroes are concerned I think today’s audience has long accepted the goodies will always win in the end. You can’t vary that formula unless you’re working with a serious C-lister (and even those rarely stay dead/failures) so the writer who wants something fresh has to experiment with other angles in a story.

    Now, I’ll admit to not being any sort of expert on Dr. Strange, but I’ve heard the main draw of his comics was never the plots, even in the ’60s; it was the sheer psychedelic allure of Steve Ditko’s art, which was a million million miles away from the whitebread dullness of DC, and even fellow Marvel mags. That Dr. Strange’s abilities – his entire world – was incapable of mapping onto (a consistent) reality wasn’t a shortcoming, but a strength. A blank check for Ditko to let his imagination run wild, and for readers to have the time of their life trying to figure out what he’d pull out next.

    (Yes, yes, what I’m describing sounds like Lost: The Comic Book, but if nothing else, the formula is certainly less obnoxious when used in 12- or 13-page non-continuing stories than hundred-installment TV dramas that keep insisting they’ve got some grand plan in mind…)

    On a somewhat-related note, I guess you could say that wizard heroes are best suited to Horror, where explaining jack shit – or even having completely opposite explanations from one scene to the next – is often the best way to milk the audience for the intended reaction. The best Vertigo comics were masters at this – Hellblazer couldn’t have run 300 issues on Alan Moore’s reputation alone – and even “softer” stuff like The Books of Magic knew to impress the audience on a scene-to-scene basis, enough that they wouldn’t *care* about the big picture.

    In contrast, Harry Potter becomes less and less impressive every time I reread, because Rowling’s using the whole wizard setting to tell what’s, in the end, a *very* mundane coming-of-age/war story. Here we have a series based less on sensation and far more on plot, except that plot still needs to be held up with special doohickeys Rowling introduces, empowers, and occasionally depowers at whim (the Time-Turners, the Goblet of Fire, the Fidelius Charm… and don’t get me started on all the wand “rules” propping up Book 7).

    tl;dr – if you have a wizard hero, aim for something other than goodie-fights-baddie stories.

    … this… this probably wasn’t what you wanted for a First Comment, was it? I swear, I’ll watch the movie (and all the movies since Winter Soldier) ASAP and report back with something of value.

    1. There’s a lot of room to dig into the concept, too. For instance, what exactly is a “wizard”? Somebody who uses magic? But then, what distinguishes them from witches, warlocks, sorcerers, magicians, shamans… or psychics, for that matter?

      I suspect if pressed, most people will admit to having the image of an old man who studied a long time to master the power of magic, a la Dumbledore. The prime example for that particular trope would, of course, be Gandolf the Grey-ish White of “Lord of the Rings” fame… although it amused me when I learned that Gandolf was not, in fact, a human after all, but something kinda like an angel (or something. Agent of a higher power, anyway.) So what the hell is a wizard supposed to be, other than a convenient label that doesn’t actually explain anything? Just like “magic,” in fact. 😉

      Oh, and let’s just look at the Wizard of Oz for a moment. No, on second thought, let’s not. 😑

      So it’s kinda hard to accept the statement “Wizards should not be main characters” without some working definition of what a wizard actually is. And if the only working definition of “wizard” is “can use magic” (or is named Oz 😛) then what you are saying is “Main characters shouldn’t use magic,” which will immediately incur the wrath of an unknowable number of fantasy writers. 😈

      So tell me: isn’t what you are lashing out against really just bad writing? Rather than wizards rewarding bad writing, isn’t it just really easy to write them badly? 😅

      (This was actually supposed to be a reaction to Lotus, but somehow I ended up attacking the same point he did, from a different angle. Oops. 🙄)

      1. For our purposes here, a “wizard” is someone who has supernatural powers with no concrete limitations or restrictions. You could argue that both silver age Superman and The Doctor qualify.

      2. I do believe they call those people “gods,” my friend. 😉

        But OK, let’s roll with that for a second. I think it should be possible to make a well written main character with poorly-defined limits on his magical powers; I can even think of a formula that would probably work out well:

        1. MC demonstrates a new piece of magic (or whatever), e.g. Eye Lasers.
        2. A new enemy, or an old enemy with a new trick shows up who is completely impervious to said magic, e.g. The Living Mirror.
        3. MC demonstrates how using the magic in a different way still allows him to win, e.g. reflecting Eye Lasers off the Living Mirror and into a nearby cliff, which then collapses on him while he gloats at the MC’s foolishness.

        See? It practically writes itself. 😛

        I suppose the trick is just to make sure you introduce the ability first, huh? 😉

      3. Gonna be really pedantic here but there usually is a distinction made between wizards, warlocks, shamans, etc. In general, wizards use spells that are cast from their own power, warlock is often just an honorific for older or especially powerful wizards, sorcerer is really just the evil equivalent of warlock, magicians are more cheap parlor tricks (illusion and misdirection), and shamans harness the power of elemental spirits or gods.

      4. I don’t think your “usually” is really usual, though. For instance, in many settings “warlock” is someone who received power from a devil; in others, it’s just a term for a male witch.

        My point being, the terms only mean what the author wants them to, so saying “Wizards shouldn’t be main characters” doesn’t mean a lot unless you are specific about what you mean by “wizard.” Mouse, here, is defining it as “someone who has undefined/unrestricted supernatural powers.” I don’t think that’s actually a typical representation of a wizard, but this is his article, so he gets to decide what a wizard is. You see? 😉

    2. You’re probably on to something there. I always prize narrative over visuals which probably explains why I don’t enjoy Strange. Constantine is interesting because his magic usually gets him IN to trouble and rarely gets him out.

  2. I don’t think I could disagree more on this one Mouse. I thought this movie was EXCELLENT, pretty easily a top 3 Marvel movie for me, behind only Winter Soldier and Guardians 1. It definitely was a retread of Iron Man but I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with that, all origin stories kind of bleed together after awhile. Honestly the big reason why I liked this one so much is the magical elements and the visuals. I’m very much a swords and sorcery kind of guy so seeing magic represented as stunningly and creatively as it was in this movie was just fantastic. Also helps that I’m a big fan of basically every major actor in this thing (except Mikkelson but only because I haven’t really seen him in anything). Chiwetel Eijofar I’ve been a fan of since I saw Serenity and screw Matthew McConaughey, Eijofar deserved that Oscar for 12 years a slave. Benedict Wong I know from Sunshine, which is so fucking good, and the Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation” which might be my second favorite Black Mirror episode (after San Junipero of course). And Tilda Swinton of course is just fucking incredible in literally everything she’s in. So yeah, all that together made me just enjoy the hell out of this one.

  3. I can acknowledge that Doctor Strange is pretty much Iron Man with magic. But I still got enough enjoyment out of this movie that I’d call it worthwhile. The “final battle” is one of the best scenes in the MCU.

    So you’re going on to Disney sequels, eh? I wonder if you’ll review the one that is actually, factually the worst; or if you’ll just pick one that most people hate and say it’s the worst, while being completely wrong.

  4. Well, let’s tackle the Winter Soldier question first: Zola’s algorithm is supposed to find people who will be a danger to Hydra now and in the FUTURE. Any kind of danger. Stephen Strange is already a famous surgeon at this point and apparently the algorithm was able to detect that if push comes to shove he would be a danger. Just like those valedictorian Sitwell mentions isn’t a danger just yet but according to the algorithm he will be.

    Otherwise….I was so excited about everything related to this movie and then I saw the writers they picked and groaned. Despite the inventive ending, more or less every single problem in this movie boils down to the script. For starters: Stephen and Tony are actually very different characters. Tony has a self-destructive streak a mile long and his behaviour is mostly based on the feeling of not living up to some sort of standard, hence he lashes our. He has also no self-control whatsoever. Stephen is the total opposite of this, he is a control freak to a degree that he wants to control time itself (hence his watch collection). He is also overly concerned with his reputation, because this is the one piece which actually is immortal to a certain degree, especially if he manages to put himself into the history books. And all those elements are there in the movie, but the writers pile so much bs on it following the “it worked in other Marvel movies, so let’s do it again” approach that is kind of buries all the creative ideas in this movie. Which is frustrating to watch, to be honest.

    The other frustrating thing is the time-line issue. This movie could have played whenever, I don’t get why they didn’t integrate it better with what happened beforehand in the MCU. The hurt soldier should be the one from Ironman 2 in order to give Stephen some time to train. He should be on it for years if you ask me. But even more problematic is the structure of the movie itself. Like: I get that most MCU movies start with some sort of action set-piece and if you don’t put the fight at the beginning there, it takes some time until something interesting is happening, but the movie should be structured in a way that we enter the mystic world WITH Strange, experiencing his awe (and sometimes horror – honestly, why hire a guy who is famous for horror movies as a director if your don’t even try to create a feeling of uneasiness in your audience?) along with him, not being ahead of him by a mile. Not to mention the time-line issues it creates IN the movie. I mean, what is the villain doing all the time while Steven trains? Fiddeling his thumbs? It can’t take that long to read one page of a book. This whole story would make much more sense if the Cacillious had already left the order with his followers when Steven comes, but attacks the first time to get the book while Steven is already there. There is a LOT in this movie which would work better if it either happened at another moment or if it had a little bit more time to breath. And I blame the writers. This is their job!!!

    Still like the movie, though, the ending rescues a lot, as does the excellent performances by everyone involved. I look forward to the next Doctor Strange…but with a different set of writers, please.

  5. For me, I’d rank this somewhere in the middle of the MCU movies. Not the best. Not the worst. Just average. I, too, really enjoyed the ending and loved the way Strange defeated Dormammu. There should be more out-thinking the enemies instead of out-punching them.

    Hoo-boy! Next month is Direct-to-Video Disney Sequel month? I think this video will sum up our sadistic sides’ reaction upon hearing this news….

  6. After watching Spider-Man: Homecoming last week, I can safely say that continuity does not matter in the MCU anymore. Just roll with it and enjoy the ride.

  7. Oh man, I thought there was an old Doctor Strange movie but I was also starting to convince myself I had just imagined it. Now I’m gonna have to track this thing down and watch it.

  8. Not a huge fan of this movie, despite being a pretty big doctor strange fan. It’s not strange enough, we should’ve gotten more scenes like that citybending scene or the open your mind scene or any of the scenes where they’re doing magic that consists of more than just “wee pretty sparkles!”.

    I also hate that Wong is just a generic sorcerer instead of, at least, Stephen’s best friend. And that Jericho is not called Jericho.

  9. So the villain is Mr. Angry Eyes?

    What do you think of Cumberdoodle in the sex appeal department, Mouse? Team Swoon or Team Scary Alien Man?

    1. I think he’s at his most attractive AS Dr. Strange–I’m normally not a fan of facial hair, but the neat beard fills out the chin and, along with the occasional bangs over the forehead, makes the face seem less long. (It’s amazing how much he looks like the comics character–the high cheekbones, the piercing eyes…)

  10. I can’t tell if “Scranton, New Jersey” was the joke or a geographical blunder. I really am overly nit picky in comments aren’t I?

  11. I understand that opinions are subjective but I’ve got to disagree with you. I think this movie deserves at least a little more than 51%. In my opinion it was one of the only Marvel movies to feel different and distinct from the others. And it was pretty funny in some places, too.

  12. Great review as always, you stupendous rodent.

    I’m alright with this movie, it was fun. Sometimes that’s enough to get by. I just wish it had a better villain.

    You mentioned that this was the one where Marvel seemed to become aware of their reputation for being visually meh (despite occasional exceptions), and took steps to correct it. I just wish they had also become aware of their reputation for dull villains (despite occasional exceptions) and done the same.

    And I agree with what you said in a previous review that it’s usually okay that the MCU spends less time developing their villains, because they are so interested in their HEROES…except that like you noted, this is basically a hero we’ve seen before. They could have pared down Strange’s arc without losing much (“magic Iron Man, got it”), and spent more time developing Kaecilius, Dormammu, and all the weird metaphysical stuff.

    The existence of literal eldritch gods just outside our dimension who are begging for a chance to poke their heads in and ask us our thoughts on tentacle hentai seems like it would be a pretty big deal for the MCU, maybe even bigger than that chap with the shiny glove. But no, we needed to devote that screentime to “asshole becomes a slightly more lovable asshole” again.

    They are getting better, I think. Ego and Vulture were both big steps up in the villain department, and of course they already had Loki and Zemo. If they can wrangle a little excitement out of Hel and Thanos, things’ll be gravy. But Kaecilius may be the single most boring MCU baddie yet. Total waste of a great actor like Mikkelsen.

  13. “Fine, August is “Direct to Video Disney Sequel” month here on Unshaved Mouse. Which, let’s be honest, is basically the same thing”
    OH SHIT.
    HOW DID I MISS THIS THE FIRST TIME.

    I can’t wait for you to tear some of those movies a new one.

  14. Hey Mouse. Good review. But let’s get down some nitty gritty in the whole argument of whether or not that was Rhodes or not. It is specifically said that the “Air Force pilot” was hurt in an experimental suit of armor. Rhodes was wearing the War Machine Armor Mark III, two full successive upgrages to the original Iron Mark Mark II armor he took from the Malibu mansion. How do you call that experimental? Wouldn’t the experimental suit be the Hammer Industries one?

    BUT… Billy goes on to say that he crushed it, not twisted or dislocated it, which does indicate that it was Rhodes. It also says Rhodes was 35, which seems young for a colonel, until you look up Rhodes’ age. He’s 48, born in October 8, 1968. Lifted that from the MCU website, so it can’t be Rhodes. Means either they screwed the pooch in continuity, or someone else is wearing a suit of armor.

      1. Honestly, would you want the world to have access to Iron Man armor?

        If your answer was anything other than yes, you need to re-evaluate your priorities because I would love to have my own flying suit of armor. No congestion.

    1. How’s this one for settling the debate. War Machine is known the world over as an Avenger. Wouldn’t his assistant have mentioned that?

      “Hey, got the War Machine here with a crushed spinal.”

      Strange – “The Avenger?”

      Billy – “Yeah. Apparently his armor failed and he crashed.”

      Strange – “This is easy. 50 others could do it.”

      Billy – “Yeah, and you could be the man that made War Machine walk again when not even the great Tony Stark could.”

      Strange – “Book him.”

      1. Only if the US military had made public the fact that one of their greatest assets was put out of comission by Captain Ametica, which I imagine they would want to keep quiet. Secondly, Steven wouldn’t care who the patient was because he doesn’t care about his patients. What matters to him is challenging, unique surgeries. He doesn’t do boring. Even if the Pope needed routine surgery he’d pass.

      2. But if its Rhodes that means the Sokovia Accords are in effect, which makes War Machine not an American asset, so much as a U.N. asset. Remember, he needs U.N. approval to operate, or he winds up like Captain America, a criminal on the run.

        I think Strange would have operated for the stardom power of it all. War Machine is a national treasure, and what doctor doesn’t want to sink their scalpel into a real celebrity and bring them back from the brink?

  15. Good Mouse, having read through your fine review above I would like to extend my sympathies twice over – firstly for your underwhelming experience of DOCTOR STRANGE (a film that one enjoyed so thoroughly that “Master of the Mystic Arts” is playing even as I type this) and secondly for the oncoming Month of Cruelties (although in the latter case one does wonder if I should be extending my condolences to Lady Mouse and Little Miss Mouse, on the understanding that their Home Cinema will be infested with a truly appalling case of Sequelitis).

    I would also like to thoroughly agree with Lobo – never thought I’d type that one, since the Main Man is very far from my favourite Comic Book character! – and say that DOCTOR STRANGE was right up my alley, a tasteful little tea-house that catered to my every whim with ease & grace (along with some truly lovely blends): it not only had a Caped Hero, it had a magical cloak that was actually a Hero in its own right.

    Mental images of Edna Mode snarling in futile disdain did not occur to me at the time, but now they have I may just start to Love this film all the more! (I love THE INCREDIBLES, but the Superhero Genre without capes is like a Western without Hats!).

    AHEM – on a less sartorially obsessed note, I do agree with a number of your points: most importantly while I enjoyed Mr Cumberbatch in the role, he quite clearly fails to understand that even though no living mortal can give a Full Price performance failing to even HINT at the late, Great Vincent Price while playing Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange is a most signal failure indeed. I’m not saying we should lock Mr Cumberbatch away with only a recording of THE RAVEN for Entertainment while he films the next DOCTOR STRANGE feature but it couldn’t possibly hurt … to suggest that he familiarise himself with a few of the choicer offerings from the Master of Moustachioed Wickedness …

  16. On yet another note: Good Mouse, may I please ask your general thoughts on the musical scores of the various Marvel Cinematic Universe features? (One recalls you regretting a failure to make that element of the viewing experience a part of your regular reviews at one point, so while I by any means require an exhaustive review and would not be rude enough to ask for one, I WOULD be very interested in reading some “thoughts in brief” on your favourite scores and least favourite soundtracks).

    Thank You very kindly in advance for your patience with this query.

  17. I’ve been enjoying your reviews for a while now, I just wanted to say this because I don’t think it was mentioned yet; at the end of the movie, to my understanding, Dr. Strange is not the Sorcerer Supreme. He is just the Master of the New York Sanctum.
    Also, reading the bit you wrote on magic in stories, I wonder if you ever read Brandon Sanderson’s thoughts on it?
    https://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/
    He goes into the sort of points you do, and I find the ideas interesting.

  18. “So many Doctor Strange stories boil down to this:”

    Actually, that whole exchange also sums up why I dislike Yu-Gi-Oh so much. Well, that and the character designs.

    Hery, on recent Disney news, has everyone heard about all the cameos in Wreck-It-Ralph II? Or about Darkwing Duck and Megavolt in the new Duck Tales show?

  19. Right, so, interesting post, but, small detail: Steven Strange was a world-renowned surgeon of exceptional skill, and far more likely to lend his rather potent services to Hydra’s enemies instead of Hydra. Just imagine if you *nearly* kill an Avenger or five, to say nothing of all the regular people who’d be resisting them, but one doctor keeps putting them back together and getting them back into the fight. It makes perfect sense for Hydra to want to take him out.

    1. Naaaaah c’mon. Where does it end? “This grocer would surely sell milk to the accursed Captain America! He must be eliminated!”
      “Hail HYDRA!”
      “Hail HYDRA!”

      1. 1) Restoring full-fledged Avengers and who-knows-how-many wounded agents and other rebels is a bit more potent than selling milk.
        2) Then again, running a food store would allow one to feed any resistance movement with a little creative paperwork. An army marches on its stomach, as they say.
        3) (Sitwell describing Insight targets to Captain America) “You, a TV anchor in Cairo, the Undersecretary of Defense, a high school valedictorian in Iowa City, Bruce Banner, Steven Strange, anyone who’s a threat, now or in the future.”
        4) (scene where the Insight carriers are selecting their targets) Maria Hill in the Triskelion, someone in the Capitol Building, someone in the Pentagon, someone coaching a little league baseball game, Avengers Tower, and a saturation of hundreds of thousands of targets of other targets everywhere… within a fairly small region of the country, let alone the world.

        Yes, I am quite certain a an uncooperative world-class surgeon would be on the list. 😉

      2. On the list, absolutely. The point is more that Sitwell expects them to know who Stephen Strange is (which is why he actually names him instead of saying “a world class surgeon” or something)

  20. Whew! You’ve got a lot of long comments on this one! Maybe someone said this already, but I thought that a battle scene in which the city was getting *pieced together* was Marvel’s subversion of superhero movie tends where a city gets torn to pieces. Combined with what you said about Strange’s use of wit to win the day (and doing so without killing anyone) made a little place in my heart for this movie.

      1. Eagle, we /talked/ about this.

        I apologize for my uncouth friend who would sully your blog with such a rude suggestion. Carry on as if you hadn’t heard.

        Besides, knowing the recommendations and the commenters here (*cough*) Mouse will be struggling with plenty of horrific movies as things are…

  21. True story, every problem I had with this movie was how it dealt with surgeons and the practice of medicine. No, my friend, you as a neurosurgeon could truly not have done better with bilateral hand crush injuries, and I say that with some serious experience working with uber qualified orthopedic hand surgeons behind me. Then I got angry about.. yeah, let’s just say I got mad and remained mad even through some truly amazing CGI bits.
    I get tired of Master Of All Teh Sciences Tropes. It exhausts me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s