Dr. Strange -- the Movie of the Mystic Arts

There are SPOILERS here!!! Don’t read this if you’re going to see Dr. Strange and don’t want to know what happens in Dr. Strange.

I LOVE Dr. Strange.

The comic, I mean. That’s why this is a ridiculously long review of a comic book movie. I love the Steve Ditko originals. I love the Thomas-Colan and Englehart-Brunner eras. I LOVE the Stern-Rogers-Smith period. I haven’t read much since then, but I love the Dr. Strange I know.

I LIKE Dr. Strange.

The movie. It’s an enjoyable piece of the Marvel Studios tapestry. It is like a solid gangster picture from the 1930s. It is a fun western from the 1940s. It is a good sci-fi/monster movie from the 1950s. It is a successful example of a genre.

The actors are fine. Benedict Cumberbatch is good as Dr. Strange. He is charming, as always. The guy is on screen probably 90 percent of the movie, and he carries it off effortlessly. Everyone else is fine. Tilda Swinton does a breezy confident Ancient One, sort of a positive-thinking motivational speaker of magic. She could easily be stalking a stage at an annual sales conference with a little microphone strapped to her head telling you to tap your unlimited potential. I wish they had gender-switched Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo rather than the Ancient One (or both of them for that matter). Ejiofor is fine, but a female Mordo might’ve given the opportunity to create a little more texture to the movie. Mads Mikkelson is nothing special as the throwaway villain Kaecilius. It’s not his fault; Marvel movies typically (and surprisingly) have very shruggable villains.

The skeleton of a great story is there (thanks to Steve Ditko), but it goes very much by the numbers. The same stuff we’ve seen before, just with different weird costumes and cool powers. I felt like I was watching a movie created by a team of talented storyboard artists and FX designers who then gave the outline to a screenwriter for a single pass with the instructions: “Put in some running gags and a character bit in Act I that pays off in Act III. And get it back by Tuesday.”

The Stephen Strange character arc is basically the same as Robert Downey’s Tony Stark, but with magic rather than armor. An arrogant, self-destructive genius who learns the value of helping others. He has a girlfriend who loves him even though he’s a jerk; she helps him out sometimes but basically stands there looking confused. He has a variety of humorless sidekicks to snark off. And he has a wacky loveable cape instead of Tony’s wacky loveable robotic assembly arm.

The visuals are terrific. The SFX are great, just like they had been in Inception.

It moves fast, clocking in under 2 hours. Didn’t want more than that.

So the problems?

Stephen Strange is an action placeholder, not a compelling character. Judging him against his comic book movie colleagues, he doesn’t have the oomph of Tony Stark or Steve Rogers or even Thor. His story arc focuses on his quest to find magic to cure his hands, but the magic cures his selfishness instead. The big moment is when he decides to dedicate his magic to protect the helpless and fight evil rather than heal his shaky hands and go back to his lucrative surgical practice. Really? That’s a tough choice? You’re telling me that a brilliant, inquisitive guy could for one instant witness the miracles at the Ancient One’s magic camp and go back to his old life? The only other choice he might more reasonably make is to realize that magic could be the path to heal ALL illness in the world. But apparently that thought never occurs to the Sorcerer Supreme, or anyone else. Selfish sorcerers.

Oh, and it’s nice that Dr. Strange gets promoted to Sorcerer Supreme after like a week with the Ancient One. I’m sure that seems fair to all those other students who busted their butts for years learning kung fu and magic spells in the Nepalese cold.

More problematic for the movie is that Strange’s relationships with the other characters aren’t very satisfying. The best Marvel movies manage solid character relationship threads or moments: Tony and Pepper, Steve and Bucky, Dr. Erskine, Agent Carter, Sam, Natasha, etc…, Thor and Loki. In Dr. Strange, the girlfriend story goes nowhere and teaches him nothing. Mordo never really provides him with anything other than a snap personality assessment (that amounts to nothing in the plot) and a fistfight partner. In the comic, Baron Mordo has the job they gave to Kaecilius in the movie; he is the Ancient One’s student-gone-bad. Not sure why they felt compelled to create a new student who went to the Dark Side, only to make Mordo go bad too for the sequel. Should’ve just used Mordo as a rival-turned-villain and let Wong be Dr. Strange’s partner.

Most disappointing is Strange’s sterile relationship with the Ancient One. The movie never presents a touching mentor/student moment between them. She is kooky and distant at first, and then Strange finds reason to distrust her. Neither her death nor her parting wisdom have the impacts they should.

Now, the Cloak of Levitation. Very clever and fun. But what the hell good is it? During the fight with Kaecilius when the cityscape is twisting all over the place, Dr. Strange tumbles off buildings and falls. Hello, Cloak of LEVITATION. Why isn’t his cloak keeping him afloat? Maybe the cloak is levitating just enough to prevent him from plummeting to his death? Then why doesn’t Mordo go squash? He can’t fly. Do his flamey boots save him? I kept waiting for Strange to grab Mordo and save him from falling. But both of them dropped what appeared to be hundreds of feet at very fast speed, and just came down a little hard, like they’d jumped off the front porch. But then the superpowerful Ancient One dies in a fall. What the hell? Did I miss something? If you’re going to give a guy a Cloak of Levitation, you can’t just make it levitate when it’s convenient to the story.

And the Eye of Agamotto. So this thing can change time? Time travel as a plot fix is a really slippery slope to go down. Doesn’t that give Dr. Strange the way to fix any problem now? Just go back in time and replay it until you get it right?

Now, as a Dr. Strange fan, it is fun to see the cloak and the eye and the Sanctum Sanctorum, and the Staff of the Living Tribunal, and the Wand of Watoomb (that’s the thing Wong uses in the final fight, but you may not have known that and that’s part of the problem). Those little Easter eggs are cool for comic fans, and there are tons of them in the movie, but they add nothing to the plot or the characters.

And finally, the Dread Dormammu. He is one of my favorite villains. While they did a nice job of replicating Steve Ditko’s LSD-like rendition of the Dark Dimension even though there is no Clea and no Mindless Ones, Dormammu is disappointing. In the comics, he’s a super-cool flame-headed human-sized (generally) villain. All ranty and powerful and snooty. The giant vibrating head that is movie Dormammu just doesn’t work for me. Although I understand the movie’s need for the super-evil, extra-dimensional demon thing to be bigger and scarier than the ineffective Kaecilius and his cultists whom Strange has been stomping for the entire movie. So to people who are not Dormammu lovers, the Dread One probably works just great.

Maybe it sounds like I didn’t like Dr. Strange. But I did. Really. When it pops up on tv in the future, it will be very watchable. I’ve seen Iron Man and Cap and Thor and Hulk countless times when they come on. I would happily add this to the rotation.

You go into these movies expecting fast loud entertainment with generally likeable characters, a few laughs, and a couple of “oh cool” smiles if you know the comic source material. From that point of view, Dr. Strange is fine. It meets those expectations and it will make a boatload of money. If that’s where we are with these movies, it’s a success.

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