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).

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Doctor Strange in the MCU

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DOCTOR STRANGE is one of the two comic book movies coming out in 2016 that have me legitimately stoked. It’s a Marvel character I truly love, the cast looks great, and the more I hear about the direction, the more I’m convinced it’s going to capture the spirit of the character.

That said, there are rumors and theorizing to how it will connect to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re a hair spoilery, but stuff that you  already know about if you’ve kept up with the Marvel movies.

Ok, so this article…

http://heroichollywood.com/home-1/2015/12/29/doctor-strange-will-feature-numerous-superpowers

 
…talks about the multitude of Dr. Strange’s magic powers (good stuff, as the guy has an infinite pool of magical abilities to pull from), but it also suggests that the Eye of Agamotto -the pendant he wears that is the source of a good chunk of his powers- may house the Time Stone, one of the six stones that Thanos wants.
 
I hate this idea.
 
1. “Shared Continuity”

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Nobody knows what ‘shared continuity’ means, but it doesn’t have to mean ‘everyone is involved;’ it just means that everything, however tangentially, is connected. Doctor Strange does not need to have a direct link to Thanos’ quest to get involved in Infinity War.

Why? Because he’s bigger than that. The guy literally protects reality as we know it on a minute t0 minute basis. An interloper of Thanos’ magnitude would NOT go unnoticed. He would (and has) taken on Thanos directly purely because he’s a blight on the universe; not because he’s in possession of a really powerful stone Strange knows about.

Sure, Doctor Strange will be involved in Infinity War (A. because he was in the comic and B. because EVERYONE in the movie will be in it), but he doesn’t NEED that direct of a tie to be invested in it, nor do we as an audience. We just need to know that shit’s getting real bad, and that the Avengers need help YESTERDAY.

 
2. The Eye of Agamotto

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The Eye of Agamotto literally houses the eye of Agamotto, a mystical demigod and it has unparalleled powers over wisdom and reality. Making it an Infinity Stone cheapens Doctor. Strange’s world by reducing his magical world to the shared cosmic one. Was the eye of Agamotto ever ACTUALLY Agamotto’s eye? Was Agamotto wearing the Time Stone Vison-style on his forhead? Was it a substitute for his eye? Was it converted into an Infinity Stone after Agamotto’s deeds?

Yes, the movie is still promising to travel to Doctor Strange’s (un)usual vistas, but his world is now a shared one, rather than an individual one. Again, that seems to cheapen it. Especially in that it will be, very likely, a parascientific one.

 
3. China and Magic

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Marvel movies are a huge deal internationally and count on China for much of their revenue. The problem with Doctor Strange is A. His trainer, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), lives in Tibet, a hotly contested region. Calling Tibet by that name is enough to be blocked by Chinese censors B. China is not a fan of magic in movies either, and that will be highly censored. As a result, I expect the movie to be very crafty about what they do and don’t call Strange’s powers.

Much has been made of their connection to ANT-MAN’s Quantum Realm, so there’s lots of reason to believe that the DOCTOR STRANGE movie will contain a phrase like, “‘Magic,’ as we know it, is a manipulation of energy in a way scientists haven’t yet discovered” or something.

I get it, you’ve got to get past The China Film Group, but please, please, please God, don’t cheapen the single greatest magic-user in comics history. If magic is a parascience, what’s to stop Iron Man, Hank Pym, or Black Panther (surprise, he’s a brilliant scientist too!) from adding it to their arsenal?

4. A Strange Presence

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As it was once put in a Marvel comic, when Doctor Strange shows up, you know that things have gotten as bad as they possibly can, and often because he understands what superheroes & superheroines do not. If his involvement is one of the Infinity Stones, his knowledge will be passé. The Avengers are beginning to understand by the end of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and by all rights, the audience already knows this stuff. In essence, this is demystifying a mystic.

4. Comic Legacy

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This is a weird point, but Doctor Strange has, historically, had comparatively short comic book runs. By “short,” I mean, he’s never had a run that’s lasted 100 issues for whatever reason. Popular, but never wildly so. He has, however, played a major role in nearly every Event comic and is a frequent side character when the more popular heroes inevitably butt heads with a magic villain they can’t stop. Hell, he’s periodically led teams like The Defenders, The Midnight Sons, and The Illuminati. I get where in the MCU, his role will likely be similar: a guy with a rich world and backstory, but whose life is inextricably intertwined with the more-highlighted stories of other superheroes. That makes sense, but…

5. Petulant Comic Fan Bullshit

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…That’s just not what I want for Doctor Strange.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to watch the hell out of DOCTOR STRANGE when it comes out, but what I really want is a self-contained trilogy of movies that delves into his character and those of his allies and adversaries.

The new Spider-Man, Tom Holland, has been spotted on the Doctor Strange set. I LOATHE the idea of a sequel being a team up between him and a more popular hero because that’d be time taken away from the comparatively blank mythologies surrounding his villains. After all, they’re being set up in DOCTOR STRANGE: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, Strange’s rival and superior; Michael Struhlbarg as Dr. Nicodemus West, Strange’s sociopathic replacement; and Mads Mikkelsen (!), who will in all likelihood play Dormammu, Lord of the Dark Dimension.

Hell, Amy Landecker will probably be playing Clea, Dormammu’s niece & Strange’s partner, a character who, in all of her years of existence never got character development proportional to her character’s potential. THAT’S a movie.

Seriously, the DOCTOR STRANGE movie franchise should do what the IRON MAN trilogy attempted and poorly executed -create a living, breathing world with characters who constantly build off each other for an eventual, insane payoff. The last thing I want to see is the franchise get Superman’d or Thor’d where other characters get thrown in to save a less-than-thoroughly popular character.

Fan-Whining Conclusion

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I’ve always loved comics, and a shared universe has always appealed to me within reason. What would it be like for Spider-Man to fight X-Men villains? What’s Daredevil’s relationship to Punisher? Hell, comics like “Suicide Squad” were invented to handle the fallout of shared continuity and the forthcoming SUICIDE SQUAD movie (another movie that can’t come out soon enough) was greenlit for the purpose of retroactively starting WB/DC’s shared continuity.

But I don’t want ALL the characters in ALL the comics; that destroys tone, stakes, scale, character, and emotional arcs. It’s why, generally, I despise Event comics. They’re the epitome of plot over character. When you read Batman, you expect it to take place in dark, gritty Gotham City, just as you expect Superman stories to be set in bright, shining Metropolis. The same tone applies to Marvel comic characters. I don’t want Captain America’s political intrigue overlapping Strange’s dark mysteries. Double for Spider-Man’s teen comedy. Triple for Thor’s overblown space epics. They’re just characters that don’t mean as much to me.

So, rewinding, is the Eye of Agamotto being the Time Gem really a big deal? Not in the grand scheme of things. If it organically bridges the overcomplicated stories in a way that plays to the strengths of excellent movie storytelling, all the better. Still, I really do worry about thematic and tonal unity, especially in the slog that was AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. Too many disparate characters with too many disparate goals and directions. Not for me.

Now when they want to make a Midnight Sons movie with Doctor Strange, Blade, and Ghost Rider…

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