With all the vitriol/passion this election has elicited, I needed a break from it all. I headed to the movies and saw Doctor Strange, the fourteenth installment in an unprecedented franchise that sparks its own interesting discussion about creative expression and corporate influence in the film industry.
People grumble about Marvel movies these days. They’ve been coming off the assembly line for the past eight years. Some folks are tired of big, flashy action movies or that they want something original. A lot of the criticism/cynicism towards these movies is valid.
For one thing, the market is flooded with superhero movies, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Just next year, Marvel is releasing three more movies, DC is trying to right their ridiculous ship with two more installments to their attempt at a cinematic universe, and Fox is releasing another X-men movie.
If that doesn’t turn you off of comic book movies, how about the fact that they all have the same basic plot? Think about it. Hero faces a major setback, discovers something new within himself, uses that to overcome some big threat and save the day, and looks good on camera the whole time with just enough humor thrown in there for good measure. It gets generally predictable after a while.
That’s where some of the lesser known characters come in and shake things up. The formula may not change that much, but their worlds do more than enough to make it interesting.
Much like Guardians of the Galaxy surprised audiences with the objectively bizarre premise and relatively grounded plot, so too does Doctor Strange thrill as it explores an untapped aspect of Marvel’s deep, complicated universe: magic.
Pure, unadulterated magic.
Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the best neurosurgeons on the planet, loses function in his hands after a car accident. Fueled by arrogance and frustration, he expends all of his resources on every treatment imaginable to regain his fine motor skills. He pushes away what few people he has in his life in his manic desire to return to normal, eventually tracking down a mystical lead in Nepal. Little did he realize the literal mysticism he was falling into.
Strange is a reluctant hero simply looking to get his old life back. Once his mind is opened to the possibilities of the universe by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), he puts his entire being towards understanding the mystic arts with the hopes of healing himself. He ends up being remarkably proficient, but throughout the movie he’s reminded of how little he knows about the world he’s stepping into, especially in his confrontations with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the token bad guy whose plans will destroy the world.
In the end, it’s Strange’s intelligence that saves the day, not an all-out brawl like we’ve come to expect from superheroes. There’s still plenty of action, but there’s no literal final blow that determines the outcome.
A lot of this story follows Marvel’s tried-and-true origin story formula. However, it’s focus on the mystic arts allows for an emphasis on knowledge via supernatual scholarship, giving a fresh take on morality tropes that command center stage in most superhero movies and comic books in general.
As the title of the film implies, the entire movie’s story is about Strange, who Cumberbatch plays with the intelligence and charm people have come to expect. His journey towards rediscovery and healing is consistently at the focus, almost to the point that the other characters’ struggle seem inconsequential. The strongest example comes from Strange’s pre-sorcerer life. I had no idea what his ex-lover’s first name was (played by Rachel McAdams) until halfway through the movie. One more minor spoiler: On one hand, it was certainly a bold choice to forgo the romantic tropes most entertainment can’t live without. On the other hand, she comes across as more of a passive observer, a fleeting reminder of Doctor Strange’s life before becoming a sorcerer. Maybe that was the point? Regardless, she paled in comparison to Strange.
There was also controversy over casting Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, who was traditionally an older Asian man. That’s not a stereotype at all (sarcasm, of course). Instead, they picked a damn good English actress, opting for whitewashing over forcing a respected Asian actor or actress into a racial pigeonhole. There was no politically correct option here, and that’s that. The social dialogue will continue as it always does, leading to progress down the road. In the end, her character was interesting enough, and Swinton performed well.
If you like fantastic worlds and entertaining movies that aren’t super deep, this is a pretty cool movie. It’s full of trippy visuals and action scenes that strike a blend between The Matrix and Inception with the colors of deep space nebulae. Plus, the funniest gags are from an inanimate object. Honestly, it was plenty different from the other Marvel movies for my taste, not to mention a great break from the current political climate.
If you’ve seen Doctor Strange, let me know what your thoughts are. Share if you liked it!
I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!