DOCTOR STRANGE: NOT QUITE THE MASTER OF THE MYSTIC ARTS

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Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme has always been one of my favorite characters, so as you might imagine, I had big expectations for DOCTOR STRANGE (2016). With its mind-bending visuals, decent great comedy, and good performances, it’s by no means a bad movie. After that, its themes, characters, and structures aren’t as well-realized as it thinks. If you have the courage to soldier on, brace yourself for a SPOILER-FILLED discussion.

So what’s holding this movie back?

  1. Triumph and Torment

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Whenever I watch a movie, I ask myself “Is this succeeding on its own terms?” Thus, what is DOCTOR STRANGE trying to do? Obviously, its storytelling goal was to tell the origin of Doctor Strange as a master of mystic arts by way of a dimension-hopping magic/martial arts movie. A success, in that regard.

Thematically though, it gets muddy. On one hand, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is learning to get over himself. “It isn’t about you,” the movie says, but his final confrontation with Dormammu has less to do with that –though it is physically about self-sacrifice- and more to do with a larger understanding about time, the cycles of life and death, and more. Strange isn’t overcoming himself in this confrontation; he’s displaying his mastery and understanding of time, a fundamental force of nature.

In some key scenes, Strange dallies with time, using the Eye of Agamotto to rot/unrot an apple, to momentarily restore pages to a spellbook, and to reverse the flow of damage to Hong Kong. We’re told, in a handful of scenes, that one doesn’t use magic to disrupt reality, but to preserve it. This is the message of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the obsession of Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the duty of Wong (Benedict Wong), and indeed, the mission  of the masters of mystic arts in Kamar-Taj.

EVERYONE talks about how important it is to preserve the natural order, and it’s a big deal when people are found in violation of it.  When Strange bungles time manipulation, Mordo and Wong warn him that there are ALWAYS consequences. But we never see consequences. It’s earth-shaking for Strange and (especially) Mordo to learn that the Ancient One has been defying the natural order, but there are no consequences until the day is saved. Even then, when Strange defies the natural order to reverse time and “resurrect” a ton of people, it’s not clear if Mordo is more reacting to the Ancient One’s affront or Strange’s. Strange’s confrontation with Dormammu revolves around perverting the natural order through use of time.

So why isn’t messing with Time a bigger deal?

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As soon as Strange learns that a paraplegic “healed” himself with magic, why wouldn’t that be his continual goal in training? We see Strange act like a bastard early in the movie, but he loses the selfishness pretty quickly as he trains in the mystic arts. He displays altruism and survivalism, but little selfishness. Instead, why wouldn’t all of his training be focused on healing his hands? Channeling every new spell into his hands, continuing his muscle therapy exercises, etc.?  The Ancient One might know that Strange isn’t of pure heart, but she’s got her own agenda, dealing with incursions of a seemingly unstoppable extradimensional evil. Meanwhile, Strange’s fellow student, Mordo, might encourage his studies in time manipulation  to repair his hands, to undo the misfortune that’s come upon the world, etc. Little would Strange know, each time he uses Time magic, the dark entity grows stronger. As a result, Strange would discover that his selfishness has a price and that time isn’t a toy. There would be consequences, ripple effects, that threaten to destroy reality. He would defeat Dormammu, the dark entity, with time manipulation, but would he unlock a greater evil?

Using time as our way of exploring realities, we could see alternate realities where Strange didn’t study martial arts, where he had only empty happiness, where Dormammu wiped out reality, etc. Strange would learn the consequences of messing with time, and the value of the new lease on life he’d gotten.

Sure DOCTOR STRANGE hops around between a few dimensions and plays with fractals a few times, but this is all just window dressing for fight scenes, rather than examining our impact on eternity like in INTERSTELLAR or INCEPTION. DOCTOR STRANGE’s dimension-hopping is beautiful, but felt, at least to me, like video game levels, and somewhat interchangeable. Traveling through alternate realities of his past would make Strange’s journey much more character-focused.

  1. MCU Villain-syndrome. Again.

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THOR: THE DARK WORLD’S Malekith will always be the worst MCU villain, but Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) doesn’t have much going on for him. We never see his humanity. We never see what he’s lost to make him so obsessed with stopping death. Rather, Kaecilius marches around, blank-faced, brazenly murdering people. Isn’t that in conflict? The movie opens with him ceremonially decapitating a guy, and I’m not really sure why he needed to do that. If he’d needed the blood/spirit of the dead guy for magic, that’d be something, but it’s really not played upon. It’s almost like he kills the guy JUST so we know he’s a bad guy. We’re later told through exposition that Kaecilius defied the Ancient One’s teachings and did his own thing –like Strange does- but none of this is dramatized. All of this makes him feel blank and underutilized. That’s crazy when stopping death seems like a sympathetic goal.

Kaecilus launches periodic magic attacks around the world, robbing Strange of character-development time with people  like Mordo and Wong, stunting their relationships. For Mordo, this is especially egregious, as his relationship with Strange is central to Strange’s journey and will be central to the sequel. It’d be one thing if Kaecilius was a villain worth having… but he’s got nothing to sell him.

So why not combine Kaecilius and Mordo into a single character?

This way, Mordo and Strange can grow together as students, then friends, then comrades in arms… until it becomes clear that Mordo was manipulating everything, leading to him murdering the Ancient One. Now Strange has to stop his new best friend and the dark entity Dormammu, who’s been summoned to consume the world. This way, Mordo, his relationship to Strange, his agenda, and his betrayal, have all been dramatized. If that happened, I guarantee we’d be raving about Marvel’s best new villain.

  1. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Still-Not-Supreme

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In the movie, Doctor Strange arcs from down-on-his-luck-surgeon to very-competent-with-magic-guy, which isn’t bad, but why not go further? We know that the mystics of Kamar-Taj are ranked Student, Master, Sorcerer Supreme, and that apparently a basic competency with magic is all that’s required to become a Master. Strange becomes a Master midway through the movie, just like most of the Ancient One’s acolytes, and from there, his advancement ends. Even though Strange has an unparalleled mastery of magic, even though the Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme, dies, nobody appoints Strange to her place. Why leave Strange only as special as his cohorts? Why doesn’t his arc end with him accepting the title of Sorcerer Supreme, defender of reality? The movie doesn’t have a good reason not to end this way, and a post-credits scene acts as though he IS Sorcerer Supreme. So what’s up there?

I’m also mixed on the teleportation-creating Sling Rings. I get why they’re there –focusing powers through artifacts creates rules so you can’t make shit up. That’s screenwriting 101. But why isn’t this subverted? Why doesn’t Doctor Strange find the power within himself to create portals WITHOUT Sling Rings during a critical moment? That too would’ve been screenwriting 101. There’s license to do this, considering Strange’s exponential advancement as a sorcerer.

  1. Why bother with Dormammu?

This seems a silly question, as building up the unstoppable entity is the whole thrust of the movie, but Strange’s confrontation with him isn’t special. It’s not two rivals squaring off, but a first-time meeting that, bereft of special effects, would have little gravitas. What follows is a test of wills and magic loop-holing. While that’s a classic, appropriate Strange tactic, it doesn’t NEED to be against Dormammu. Why not employ this same magical trickery against Kaecilius? Spread out the reverse-time fight scene to build to this climactic showdown of wits? Then, the threat of Dormammu can hang over the credits, only to pan out in the sequel. Using him now as a one-off makes about as much sense as making Galactus a space cloud in FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER.

  1. The race thing.

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Doctor Strange must’ve been a difficult adaptation, given its origins in 60s-era Orientalism. By all accounts, director Scott Derrickson struggled to make the races and genders less offensive, but sort of missed the mark. Tilda Swinton IS good as the Ancient One, but that role absolutely belongs to an Asian woman. While I respect Derrickson’s argument that it would’ve been hard not to make an Asian-woman-as-Ancient-One a “Dragon Lady,” I’d argue that James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY bear little resemblance to the original characters, or even the 2008 versions written by Dan Abnett. There was plenty of license to reimagine and update Doctor Strange’s mythology, especially when urban fantasy novels provides plenty of direction. Hell, Baron Mordo essentially got a whole new personality and philosophy here.

Now that we’ve wrapped up ACTUAL issues affecting the screenplay, let’s talk about nerd stuff. These things don’t make-or-break the movie, but they’re annoying little personal preferences from a guy who’s read a few comics.

Nerd Complaints:

  1. The Eye of Agamotto SHOULD NOT BE an Infinity Stone.

Man, do I ever loathe this idea. See, I’m not a fan of the Marvel universe as a whole. I love Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Marvel Magic/Horror. And I love that Marvel Horror tends to keep the rest of the Marvel Universe at arm’s reach. Making the Eye of Agamotto an Infinity Stone (the Time Gem) makes Doctor Strange a cosmic character, shrinks his universe, and limits the range of worldbuilding possibilities. After all, the Eye of Agamotto, in the comics, is an amulet literally housing the eye of Agamotto, an extra-dimensional caterpillar trickster god. I know that’s bonkers, but it’s Doctor Strange. Doctor STRANGE.

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I am NEVER doing shrooms again…

  1. I hate that Dormammu was a big head in the sky.

DOCTOR STRANGE went above and beyond in depicting the Dark Dimension from the comics, a place where space, time, and gravity don’t exactly apply. Given that its lord and master, Dormammu, is an all-powerful being bent on ruling EVERY dimension, I understand why he might be adapted as “mystical Galactus” (he’s out to consume every dimension instead of every planet), but doing so undercuts the breadth of lore surrounding him: Dormammu’s kingdom is literal; he’s got an evil sister who’s mystical-Lady MacBeth; his niece is the lover and student of Doctor Strange; and he commands an army of laser-shooting rock people.

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Seriously.

Although Strange HAS confronted loads of giant space heads, they tended to be minor deities, never to be encountered again. Dormammu is one of -if not THE- principle Strange enemy, and he’s party to most of Strange’s personal dramas. Undercutting and underutilizing him closes the door on tons of narrative potential.

  1. Why does Mordo have the wrong motivation?

I see what DOCTOR STRANGE is going for with Mordo: a radical follower with an inflexible morality, who will go off the deep end in DOCTOR STRANGE 2. His stated goal, going forward, is that there should be “no sorcerers.” Fine, but that’s the motivation of an entirely different character: Silver Dagger.

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This guy has ALL the crazy.

Silver Dagger is a crazed exorcist out to slay all things supernatural. He’s a stand-in for the religious far right, the stories about him debating belief vs. morality. His backstory naturally supports that.

Mordo is, as Derrickson put it, “very arch” –as in arch-enemy. In the comics, he’s a mustache-twirler, driven only by megalomania. There are plenty of ways to reimagine the character from being a disenfranchised student of the Ancient One. The easiest example is Anakin Skywalker approach. Make Mordo a tormented guy who’s honestly trying save the world and (as his full name is Baron Karl Mordo), he’s trying to save the people of his homeland from… something. He thinks magic is the answer. However, the Ancient One doesn’t trust him. Desperate, Mordo goes rogue, bungles his attempts to save his people, and needs to be taken down. There IS a way to make him a deep character that’s in-keeping with his comic origins, but the movie weirdly wasn’t interested in that.

But as I’ve said, these last three points are just comparing and contrasting to the source material. They have no bearing on if the movie worked or not. Infinity Stones are going crammed in there whether it’s appropriate or not. Dormammu’s lore can be replaced with another extradimensional demigod like Nightmare or Shuma-Gorath. I’m sure DOCTOR STRANGE 2 will make good use of philosophical-conundrum-Mordo. Just because something’s inaccurate, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for the material.

The Doctor Is Out

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Don’t get me wrong, DOCTOR STRANGE is still a fine MCU movie. I’m sure its visuals, rhythm, and climax will give the MCU a second wind. It IS entertaining… but I don’t think that it’s as successful on its own terms as it thinks it is. All that said, I hope the movie does well. Director Scott Derrickson has teased that his sequel would THE DARK KNIGHT by way of Doctor Strange, and that sounds hella interesting. My only hope would be that the creative team look hard at the common criticisms surrounding this (very polished) movie, and improve accordingly.

Until then, make mine Marvel (Studios).