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.
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”.
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.
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?
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 down. And 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Arriving back with his concept of the physical universe irreparably shattered, Strange begs her to teach him.
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.
While studying, Strange meets the librarian of Kamar-Taj, a man named Wong played by Benedict…Wong. Huh. How ’bout that?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?
KAECILIUS: Mister Doctor?
STRANGE: No. It’s Strange.
KAECILIUS: Maybe. Who am I to judge?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”.
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.
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…
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?
FINAL SCORE: 51%
NEXT UPDATE: 03 August 2017
NEXT TIME: August is “Let’s try to kill Mouse” month here on Unshaved Mouse.
Fine, August is “Direct to Video Disney Sequel” month here on Unshaved Mouse. Which, let’s be honest, is basically the same thing.