While waiting to see Wonder Woman (soon, it will happen soon), Mekaela and I went ahead and watched a different superhero movie, one that we never quite got around to seeing: Doctor Strange.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a super smart surgeon who’s also kind of a jerk. After a car accident ruins his hands, he goes to Kamar-Taj in search of treatment; instead he finds a whole lotta sorcery and a Cause Greater Than Himself.
1. The good news is that Doctor Strange is the extremely rare superhero movie that’s actually under two hours long. I cannot stress enough how relieving that is.
Unfortunately, this movie isn’t paced all that well. I found the first third of the movie (origins, discovery, training) all a bit on the slow side, and though the story does pick up, it doesn’t leave much time for thematic resonance or character work. Basically every side character ends up feeling underdeveloped, and I never buy the emotional journey our hero makes–which is particularly unfortunate because Dr. Strange is already a pretty boring hero.
2. Cause here’s the thing: we’ve seen this guy before.
Strange is yet another Super Special Egotistical Asshole Who Learns To Be A Better Man. In superhero movies, we’ve got Tony Stark for that. In medical dramas, we’ve got Gregory House for that. In Benedict Cumberbatch roles, we’ve got Sherlock Holmes for that. And while I’m of the firm belief that adding magic to any universe automatically makes it better, Strange doesn’t have the humor, charisma, or emotional depth of any of these other characters. He’s about as generic of an SSEAWLTBABM that you’ll probably ever see.
There are tiny moments of potential for Strange. He brings up the Hippocratic Oath at one point, which could have been interesting (sure he’s an asshole and now a sorcerer suddenly embroiled in a magical war, but he’s also a doctor and sincerely believes in the sanctity of life), only for the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to shoot that shit down cold. At another point, the Ancient One brings up Strange’s fear of failure, which the movie could have been building all along, balancing his massive ego with his deep-seated insecurity. . . but really, the only hint we have at that is how Strange won’t take cases that might mess up his perfect surgical record. Otherwise, there’s not much. And because his character development is all quick broad strokes with no real nuance, I don’t buy the moment where Dr. Strange Learns To Be A Hero. His journey has a beginning and an end, but the middle is a hurried, muddled mess.
3. As far as the other characters go:
The Ancient One
The Ancient One is described as “complicated,” but that mostly only works because Tilda Swinton can do enigmatic in her sleep. Her character does something which is kind of interesting but also isn’t given enough space. As a result, there isn’t that much to the Ancient One; she’s pretty easily summed up in one sentence. It’s really only Swinton’s performance that makes the Ancient One even remotely compelling, but since she shouldn’t have been cast in the first place . . . yeah, that doesn’t help much.
As a positive, I will point out that the Ancient One looks pretty badass while fighting in her yellow robes. I’d wanna cosplay that shit immediately, you know, if it wasn’t for all the whitewashing bullshit.
Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is mostly interesting in comparison to the other characters; next to everyone else (particularly Strange and the Ancient One), he has a very rigid sense of what is right and what is wrong. I like that about him because it makes him unique, but he does feel a bit out of balance for me. It’s not really much of a defining characteristic in the first half of the film, for instance. And then I hated his very last scene: it feels like a HUGE unearned leap to me in terms of character development. There’s a lot of interesting potential in Mordo’s character, but I don’t like where they went with him at all.
I was super happy to see Benedict Wong here, not only because I liked him so well in The Martian, or because that meant we had two English actors named Benedict, but also because I was relieved to see an Asian actor actually speak in this movie. For a movie primarily set in Nepal (not to mention a third act in Hong Kong), you’d think there might be some Asian characters of importance, but really? Not so much. Even Wong isn’t as important as I want him to be: while it’s definitely an improvement over the comics (where I guess he’s a manservant?), Wong is a Master, the guardian of the library, and ought to come across as a stone faced badass who’s superior to Strange (who, after all, just started this shit); instead, Wong comes across more as Strange’s stone-faced lackey, mostly around to be on the receiving end of Strange’s incredibly weak jokes. It’s not an acting thing; it’s a writing thing. Wong has no real arc. He has no badass moment. It’s a little disappointing.
Here’s a shocker: Kaecilius is not a hugely compelling Marvel villain. Unlike some other Marvel baddies, though–Malekith, for example–I think he had real potential to be, and not just because Mads Mikkelsen played him. (Though, obviously, that helps.) His actual backstory–family shoved in a refrigerator–is basically just one line of exposition and is pretty boring in and of itself, but his goals are unique: unlike other Big Bads, Kaecilius isn’t seeking vengeance. He doesn’t hope for world domination or godhood. He is seeking immortality, but not just for himself. This guy want to save the world by defeating time. “Time kills everything,” he says, and you know, I find that an incredibly sympathetic sentiment.
The problem is that this small exchange is basically all we get. Kaecilius has very little interiority. We mostly see him either fighting or striding around ominously. He doesn’t have much in the way of interesting dialogue. He certainly doesn’t have much in the way of actual personality, and he’s the very rare bad guy where I think a few flashbacks to his old life might have actually been a decent idea. (Where, preferably, we’d get a quick glimpse of his family members’ personalities too, like, I am absolutely NOT here for a no-dialogue, slow-motion shot of a beautiful woman laughing with golden light behind her as to indicate her benevolence.) Mikkelsen’s performance is fine and the goals are good, but the character itself just isn’t really there.
Rachel McAdams does a fine job with the role–I actually quite like some of her reactions, particularly when she suddenly has to deal with her ex-boyfriend’s weird supernatural shit–but if Kaecilius has little interiority, Christine has zero interiority. She is the Love Interest and absolutely nothing else. She is around to represent Strange’s regret and secret capacity for love. She’s around because you don’t have a mainstream superhero movie without some kind of romantic lead. (Lead, she snorts. Pepper Potts is a romantic lead. Christine Palmer is a romantic supporting player.)
Even worse, Christine has really no bearing on the plot at all. It’s so easy to take her out of the story, people. It’s so absurdly easy. This movie would be at least 20% better if Christine weren’t actually a love interest but instead a totally platonic and long-suffering BFF who’s tired of putting up with Strange’s egomaniacal bullshit. Basically, Christine needs to be a gender bent Bones and Strange needs to be Jim Kirk, only a bit more of a dick. Instead, we get a half-assed barebones version of a love story that basically just drops out of the movie because someone remembered right, we should probably do something about that Kaecilius guy. We’ll just pick this up again in the inevitable sequel.
4. One of Doctor Strange’s biggest claims to fame? Probably its visuals. Unfortunately, those didn’t all work for me, either.
Like, some of them are cool. I generally enjoyed all the astral projection stuff, and some of the fight scenes, especially the last battle scene. Mostly, though, I thought this movie was just WAY too in love with its folding-city Inception shit. Like, I enjoyed Inception too, but the movie was, what, seven years ago now? You’ve got to add a new element to it . . . but until that last battle, I didn’t think this movie did. Plus, there’s only so many times you can twist or bend a building around before your audience is like yes, yes, I GET it. You can fold spacetime. It’s all very cool, but can we do something else now?
Plus, Dormammu just looks ridiculous, right? Maybe some of the awesome visuals were lost in translation from big to small screen, but this guy? Oh my God, no. I don’t understand how I haven’t heard about this before: he’s like two steps up from the fucking Lawnmower Man. C’mon, who can take that seriously?
5. While I can’t go into too much detail before the Spoiler Section, here’s something positive I will say about this film: I genuinely enjoyed how Strange ultimately defeats the bad guy because it’s not a matter of who lands the last punch (or, I suppose, who casts the last spell). Instead, Strange pretty much saves the day by using his head. It’s part magic, part trickery, and part negotiation, and that’s the kind of solution I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in my superhero movies.
6. We must, we MUST, talk about the medical inaccuracies in this movie. Holy Jesus.
(Warning for super minor spoilers here: more because I use a lot of detail, not because I discuss anything that particularly spoils the plot.)
Take the surgery in the opening act, for instance, the one where Dr. Strange diagnoses a patient’s real problem in five seconds flat and saves him from having his organs harvested ahead of schedule. (Something I’m sure that anyone working in the organ donor network just loved.) Now, I’m a unit clerk/errand girl. My job is to find stuff and deliver things and type shit. If I’m actually in the OR, something has gone horribly awry, so let’s all be clear: this isn’t my field of expertise. But.
There are four people in this OR. Dr. Strange and Dr. Love Interest are working on the patient. This is weird because Dr. Love Interest is an ER doctor, and you’d think they might need her in, you know, the ER, but whatever. I initially assumed the third person in the room was the anesthesiologist because, like, you obviously couldn’t do a surgery without the anesthesiologist present and surely even Hollywood knew that . . . but this turned out to be a charitable assumption because on the re-watch, I realized that this guy was probably supposed to be an OR tech or something, so, like, yeah. That’s a problem.
The last guy in the room is the doc who screwed up the patient’s initial diagnosis. This dude’s got a weird role in this movie, like, I don’t really understand what function he serves? And actually, this scene perfectly reflects that, since Dr. Screw-Up isn’t actually participating in the surgery at all; apparently, he’s here to scowl on the sidelines and be both a) kind of a jerk face, and b) the victim of Strange’s jerk face-ness. You might think I’m exaggerating about his lack of participation, but let me assure you, I am not: he is literally just standing in the OR, doing absolutely nothing–with, I might add, no gloves on. Not that you can’t enter the OR without gloves on: you can, and in fact, I’m pretty sure you always do. But you keep your hands up and then someone (presumably the OR tech) helps you get gloved and gowned up, right? This total fucker, however, just lurks by the wall like he’s a jealous teenager at a middle school dance. He even touches his presumably non-sterile watch with his ungloved hands.
Nothing about this makes any sense to me. If you’re hanging out just to observe, dude, stand in the corridor and watch from there. If you’re hoping Strange fucks up and are waiting to spring into action, DUDE. Now you have to go back out, scrub up again, and go back inside, where I guess the one OR tech will stop assisting in the middle of BRAIN SURGERY to help you, since there’s absolutely no one else who can do the job. Cause you know who else is missing from this scene besides the anesthesiologist? Nurses. Honestly, people. There are more medical workers in the OR for a routine C-section than there are for this super complicated brain surgery.
And that’s just the first five minutes of the movie. You think I’m done? HA!
Let’s next discuss the Super Helpful Physical Therapist. He’s the one who just up and gives Dr. Strange the file of an old patient who was paralyzed from the chest down but miraculously began walking again. Maybe, maybe, I could have bought Super Helpful PT showing Strange an X-ray that didn’t have anyone’s name on it, but since that wouldn’t help the plot along, Super Helpful PT apparently steals this poor dude’s records and just mails them off to Strange, name very much included–and presumably address too, considering Strange tracks down the patient in the very next scene (where he’s playing basketball, natch). Meanwhile, it’s important to note that Super Helpful PT tells Strange that doing this favor will be a chore, since it will take a while to get these records, but says, “If it proves your arrogant ass wrong? Worth it.”
Is it though, Super Helpful PT? Is it really worth it? Because breaking HIPAA law will not only get your ass fired, you can face huge fines and also go to jail. That’s right, asshole, you just committed a felony because one of your patients was kind of a dick. That totally sounds worth it to me.
Finally, we just have to briefly touch on the defibrillator scene.
Look, I know, I know, Hollywood is never going to learn how to use a defibrillator right, that they’re always going to depict them shocking a heart back into beating, even though that’s totally not how they work. And most of the time I roll my eyes and move on . . . but to hear Dr. Love Interest protest that she can’t shock someone’s heart because–and I quote–it’s BEATING?! Oh my God, NO, that’s what it’s supposed to be doing. Where did you go to medical school? What in the name of God is wrong with you?
(To be clear, unless I find something actually offensive–organ transplant teams being treated like ghouls, for instance–none of this stuff ever ruins a movie for me. Like, I’ve absolutely never been all “Jeez, this would have been a great movie, but they used the defibrillator wrong, so fuck you, you’re done.” I just have a lot of fun picking this shit apart. It’s like a very particular subset of nerd rage, equal parts incredulity and amusement.)
7. Finally, before spoilers, I’d like to say that I don’t think Best Sidekick of this movie would go to Mordu or Wong. I think it has to go Strange’s Coat of Levitation.
It basically saves Strange’s worthless life, which is the mark of any good sidekick. All the hard work, none of the credit: that, my friends, is the sidekick’s lot in this world.
I already spent more time on this than I planned (which is exactly what I get for spending half the review on medical inaccuracies), so I’m just going to focus on a few key scenes. First the New York Sanctum fight between Strange and Kaecilius.
On one hand, I quite like this scene. Strange doesn’t totally know what he’s doing, which makes for a fun fight sequence. I particularly like the moment where he brandishes something that clearly alarms Kaecilius, only for Kaecilius to realize a second later that Strange has no idea how to properly use it. This is also the fight scene where the cape comes in and does its job saving Strange’s ass, which is cool.
Still, even with the cape doing the heavy lifting, Strange lasts way longer than the actual Master of the New York Sanctum, which, come on, this is some bullshit, right? Like Strange hasn’t actually graduated Sorcery School yet; hell, he’s only just passed that one proficiency that everyone else completed ages ago, and yet he somehow defeats two lackeys AND temporarily traps Kaecilius? Meanwhile, the actual Master dude gets taken down in, what? Seven seconds flat?
No. I don’t accept this. Crap like this is exactly why I don’t buy Strange’s unusual affinity for magic–because it’s such an obvious plot device to make Strange considerably more powerful than he actually should be at this point in the movie. I do not buy Strange’s survival here at all. (Maybe especially because he just up and gives the evil sorcerer who’s trying to kill him his name. Like come now, Strange. I get that you have a massive ego and all, but seriously? Don’t offer your name to people who want to murder you, especially if they can do so by magic. This is not a hard concept.)
Actually, a lot of my problems with this movie stems from not buying Strange’s heroic journey. The scene where the Ancient One is dying, for instance, and speaking with Strange in astral projection form, like, it’s not a bad scene. Both actors are good in it. But it’s also the scene where the Ancient One pretty much lays out the Moral of the Story, namely that death gives life meaning and not everything is about you. Which is fine, though gotta be honest: “death gives life meaning” stories? Not traditionally my favorite, like, I get why it’s an important human concept and all, but it doesn’t do much for me personally. I would totally be on Kaecilius’s side if, you know, he wasn’t murdering the shit out of people.
But anyway, I don’t have a problem with the lesson itself; it’s that, at this point, I don’t really believe Strange has learned it. I do not buy Strange’s emotional journey here. The arc has been sloppy, so the revelations don’t feel earned. It vexes me.
Let’s skip to the end now, including the big Hong Kong fight and Dormammu.
This is a lot of fun. Going backwards in time finally gives the movie a new visual element, which I desperately appreciated. The best moment, though, is specifically how Strange saves the world: he comes to Dormammu, asking to bargain, and then traps Dormammu in that moment. Big D kills Strange an infinite amount of times, of course, but that doesn’t free him. His only recourse is to bargain with Strange after all, which, handily, both saves everybody and gets rid of Kaecilius and his pesky followers. It’s really a very clever scene, not to mention one of the rare moments where the humor in this movie actually works for me. I’d like it even better if I thought the movie had managed to nail the thematic arc of self-sacrifice, but we’ve been over that.
Despite the fact that Strange saves the day, Mordo takes off because he doesn’t believe in breaking the rules for any reason. Initially, I was okay with this (in fact, I was happy that there was a character who really worried about consequence, about cause and effect), but because I didn’t know Mordo was a Big Bad in the comics, I wasn’t at all prepared for his heel-turn villainy in the second post-credits scene, and I found it bitterly disappointing. I assumed that Mordo would come back in more of a reluctant ally role, and I thought that was cool because–despite not being fleshed out particularly well–Strange and Mordo’s dynamic was one of the more interesting and original parts of the film, and I was looking forward to seeing more of it. To find out that he’s going to turn Evil in a twist that I don’t think the story supports at all? Boo, sir. This is my displeased face.
Finally, I’d like to say that I’m happy Dr. Strange doesn’t heal his hands at the end of the movie. I was a little uneasy the whole film about how they were going to handle this particular trope, but I’m happy to say that Strange’s happy ending doesn’t rely on magically healing his nerve damage. That was something of a relief, at least. Doesn’t quite save the movie for me, though.
Stange: “I’m breaking the laws of nature, I know.”
Wong: “Well, don’t stop now.”
Strange: “I’m not ready.”
The Ancient One: “No one ever is. We don’t get to choose our time.”
Mordo: “How’s our new recruit?”
The Ancient One: “We shall see . . . any second now . . .”
Mordo: “Oh no, not again.”
Strange: “Well, thank you for the books, and for the horrifying story, and the threat upon my life.”
Kaecilius: “People think in terms of good and evil, but really time is the true enemy of us all. Time kills everything.”
Strange: “Look at your face. Dormammu made you a murderer. How good can his kingdom be?”
It’s frustrating. I like specific beats in this movie, but overall it just doesn’t do much for me. I’d watch it again if someone really wanted me to, but I can’t imagine doing it on my own. I recently spoke to some coworkers who liked this one because it felt different to them than other Marvel movies, but despite all the magic and CGI stuff, Doctor Strange feels a lot more generic than I want it to.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, I guess? I clearly don’t like where his character goes, but I do like his performance. (Although I’m hard-pressed to think of a performance of his I didn’t like. Regardless.)
Oh, don’t be a selfish asshole. Not everything is about you, and when it’s your time, it’s your time. Embrace that, because, you know. MEANING.