Thoughts on ‘Doctor Strange’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Captain America: Civil War

Following the game-changing gut-shot of Civil War, we refreshingly take a break for another origin story, and this one marks another sharp stylistic change, bringing magic and wizardry into the MCU.

We open with a group of magic-using zealots stealing a set of pages from a mysterious library, only to be pursued by the Ancient One, who kills several of them with mind-bending magical powers. From there we cut to the brilliant, arrogant Doctor Stephen Strange casually trading music trivia with his fellow doctors while performing brain surgery, then rushing into action to save a dying man with a bullet in his brain alongside his compassionate ex-girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer. This quickly establishes that Strange is extremely smart, has a vast store of knowledge, and is so skilled at precision techniques that he can dig a bullet out of a brain free-handed. It also establishes that his arrogant, self-centered, and more concerned with his own reputation than with saving lives: he brutally cuts down a fellow doctor for making a bad call on a complicated case and is reluctant to engage with the family of the man whose life he has just saved. Later, while reviewing possible cases (including a references to “a soldier whose spine was broken in some kind of experimental armor,” hinting that the prologue takes place about the time of Iron Man 2), he rejects the ones that are either not interesting or that he doesn’t think he’ll succeed at (“You want to ruin my perfect record?”).

Then, distracted by reviewing these cases, he loses control of his car and crashes, ruining the hands that are so crucial to his work. Desperate to get his old life back (and blaming everyone but himself), he spends his whole fortune on experimental medical techniques to no avail. In the process, however, he uncovers the story of a man who somehow healed a severed spinal cord. Tracking the man down, he learns of a place in Nepal called ‘Khamar Taj,’ where there are “deep secrets.” Strange spends his last dime to travel there, where he is introduced to the secrets of magic and spiritual power by the Ancient One and the steadfast Mordo, forcing him to open his mind to possibilities he had never imagined…while placing him at the heart of a magical war for the survival of the planet.

So, my first point will be a criticism; the prologue showing the villainous Kaecilius stealing the pages and evading the Ancient One should have been left out. It’s not needed, the violence sets a brutal tone that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, and I think the story would have been stronger if we had discovered magic and seen its amazing effects along with Strange, rather than being shown it right off the bat (it also raises questions of just when all this took place; Strange’s recovery efforts and training obviously take several years at least, so were Kaecilius and his allies just working on those pages the whole time?). An unfortunate lapse right out of the gate.

On the other hand (and hands are a motif in this film), Strange’s introduction is just about perfect; we’re shown his brilliance, his love of knowledge – even useless trivia – and his arrogance in swift succession. His relationship with Palmer is expertly sketched, in that they were together once, but are so no more due to his self-centeredness (their dates mostly consisted of his speaking engagements). Both clearly still have feelings for each other, but she’s unwilling to be only another ornament to his greatness.

Strange immediately calls to mind Tony Stark as another arrogant genius needing to be taken down a notch, though Strange is much more emotionally stable; where Tony is erratic and ignores the needs of others, Strange is focused to the point that he blasts straight through other people, regarding them with contempt for not being as smart as he is. The film is about him learning to take his mind off of himself and use his gifts compassionately, rather than for his own glory. This theme is well-sketched throughout the film, especially in relation to Palmer, who is defined by her compassion, which Strange dismisses with contempt while informing her, in no uncertain terms, that he loves his work much more than he’ll ever love her. It’s probably his worst moment, coming at the low point of his desperation, and he is shown to deeply regret it, but it shows us what kind of man he really was; someone completely reliant on his material success, his pride, and his career for his identity, so that when those are stripped away what is left is a bitter, angry, even cruel man at the core.

The rest of the film is about that man leaving the world behind and discovering a reality beyond the material, and in the process becoming a better, more compassionate man; someone who actually cares more about others than himself.

I especially appreciate that Strange’s journey involves the explicit rejection of his materialism. “We are made of matter and nothing else,” he informs the Ancient One, calling humanity “Tiny, momentary specks in an indifferent universe.” She in turn calls him “a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” before forcibly opening his eyes to the nature of reality.

It’s also appropriate that his journey in the mystic arts sees Strange being humiliated again and again, from being forced to sit on Kamar Taj’s doorstep and beg to be taught for hours on end to being dumped on top of Mt. Everest and challenged to magic himself back before he dies. He even gets a check to his notions of his own charm when he runs up against Wong, the hilariously stoical librarian, who, when Strange laments that people used to find him funny, cynically asks whether those people worked for him. After the opening, most of the film is about breaking Strange down, humiliating him, and forcing him to come to grips with his true place in the universe – or multiverse, rather. He constantly gets humiliated, beaten up, embarrassed, and corrected, but he is learning all the while. The ultimate lesson being, as the Ancient One says in one of the film’s best scenes, “It’s not about you.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Strange is just pathetic and useless either. He progresses quickly, aided by both a photographic memory and a creative, exploratory approach to his subjects (both established early on with his vast store of useless trivia on top of his medical knowledge and his unorthodox approach during surgery). When he goes into battle, he generally starts by being overwhelmed by his more skilled opponents before analyzing the situation and improvising a strategy to his own advantage. Though, believably, his inexperience means that this sometimes backfires horribly, or else results in effects he didn’t anticipate (as when he accidentally kills a man because he doesn’t understand the implications of the battle).

Speaking of the fight scenes, this is one of the first films I’ve seen that truly takes full advantage of the idea that these are wizards fighting. They don’t just shoot beams or kinetic energy back and forth (as in, say, the Harry Potter films): they literally alter reality around themselves in mind-bending ways. There’s a bit where Strange is running from Kaecilius, who uses a spell to bend the ground beneath him so that he’s running in place, and then shifts gravity back and forth to throw him around. Strange has a fight with another man when they’re both in astral form, meaning that they can’t be seen by the rest of the world and have minimal, ghostly effects on their surroundings (e.g. when one of them goes flying through a lamp, it flickers slightly). The climax involves a battle between two groups of wizards while time is running backwards around them, so that instead of the usual super-powered destruction, everything is being put back together, with walls bricking themselves up, glass windows reforming, and dead civilians coming back to life.

Visually, Doctor Strange is one of the strongest and most creative films in the MCU, with space, time, and reality all bending around our characters. At one point, New York is turned into a four-dimensional labyrinth, before a surreal arena of flowering masonry is formed in the midst of infinite space. Strange’s introduction to the mystical world takes the form of a surreal trip across reality (including a glimpse at the Microverse from Ant-Man), full of bizarre and terrifying – and beautiful – imagery. Not to mention that the magical effects themselves, with glowing geometric shapes accompanied by intricate hand gestures, are just really cool to watch.

On that subject, there is a strong atmosphere of knowledge and learning in this film. Wizards are, of course, conceived as men with unique, arcane knowledge of the world, and that idea pervades this film; the thump and crackle of large, ancient books, the intricate geometric shapes and precise hand-gestures, the set design of eastern temples and old brownstone mansions (and a Medieval church in one scene), the ancient relics the heroes use in battle, the film is filled with the sense of learning, study, ancient knowledge, and complex concepts that can be grasped by a sufficiently strong mind. Strange literally has his mind opened to receive knowledge he had never imagined, which then uses to save the world.

This forms one of the three main motifs of the film: secrets and knowledge, hands (and with them skill and accomplishment), and time (and with it the fear of death), all of which play out again and again in an almost seamless whole, and all of which, of course, fit perfectly with the idea of Doctor Strange; the man of knowledge and magic.

I also like how Strange, arrogant and selfish though he has been, is shown to take his Hippocratic Oath seriously; when he inadvertently kills one of Kaecilius’s men, it’s a huge shock for him, even though the guy had been in the process of trying to murder him. He also takes steps, from then on, to defeat the bad guys without killing them as much as possible.

As noted, one of the best scenes features Strange and the Ancient One having a final heart to heart at the very moment of her death, which she is magically stretching out so that she can watch the snow fall one last time. It’s a quiet, somber, immensely human moment as they discuss death and the meaning of life. I’m not sure I care for her claim that “death gives life meaning,” though it can be taken in a good way. I do like her comment that “no one ever is [ready]. We don’t get to choose our time,” whether to die or to face up to a crisis. The way she simply vanishes off screen after letting go of Strange’s hand (hands again) is very tastefully and thoughtfully done.

The Ancient One herself is a great character (though the behind-the-scenes reasoning for the decision to make her a bald Celtic woman rather than an old Tibetan man – to appease the Chinese government – is frankly disgusting); as Mordo says, she is “steadfast, but unyielding; merciless, yet kind.” It’s a tricky balance, but she truly does fit the description. She has a great, half-amused, serenely self-confident attitude throughout, as though she is so assured of her own power and knowledge that she seems to regard Strange’s bluster and arrogance rather as though he were a precocious fifth-grader…which he probably seems like to her (I also like that the film manages to have Kaecilius kill her without putting undue stress on our credulity by resorting to the unexpectedly simple and ruthless technique of stabbing through one of his own men).

Mordo is cool too; a rigid, upright, steadfast hero who is more skilled than Strange, but less flexible whether in strategy or personality. His friendship and clashing views with Strange are pretty well realized, with both of them allowed to have their own consistent views and personalities, and his presence – especially his final scene – hint at things to come in future films. I also like that, though he is the rigid one, he’s not humorless or stiff; he makes jokes and chuckles at Strange’s mistakes. We get a bit of hint at his backstory, as he describes how he wanted “the power to defeat my enemies. You gave me the power to defeat my demons.” Though, as the Ancient One warns him, “we never conquer our demons: we only rise above them.” (which is actually a pretty good bit of moral advice; never assume you’ve conquered your sins, because they can always come back if you let your guard down.)

I also really like Palmer, the would-be love interest. She’s extremely likable as an all around good person showing compassion on a man who really doesn’t deserve it, but who walks out on him once he crosses the line. She gets a lot of very funny reactions once Strange comes back into her life after being made a sorcerer (“So, you joined a cult?” “No…well, not exactly”), as well as getting to play an important role during the action by keeping him alive. I also appreciate that, though Strange is contrite for his past behavior, the film recognizes that they can’t be together. There’s been too much damage done, and their respective vocations call them apart (nicely demonstrated in their final scene).

On that note, the film does maintain a delightfully self-aware tone of how crazy and absurd the events are, such as Strange commenting on how it doesn’t make much sense to put warnings of potential soul and mind-rending consequences *after* the spells, or Palmer’s terrified reactions to seeing some of Strange’s magic in action (By the way, that scene with the mop? That was apparently a happy accident and an unfeigned reaction by Miss McAdams). Just having Strange summarize the plot at one point makes for a pretty good joke: “Well, a powerful sorcerer who gave himself over to an ancient entity, can bend the very laws of physics, tried very hard to kill me. But I left him chained up in Greenwich Village, and the quickest way back there is through a dimensional gateway that I opened up in the mop closet,” to which Palmer answers, “Fine, don’t tell me.” It’s funny, not because the plot is stupid, but because it’s…well, strange and something no normal person would believe.

(The film also accounts for the Avengers – and their lack of presence here – by having Wong explain that the sorcerers operate on a different level, defending the Earth from more mystical attacks while the Avengers deal with physical threats. And, given the staging the battles, while whole action scenes take place between instants of time, or in hidden parallel dimensions, it’s clear that the Avengers wouldn’t be much help in this case anyway).

Then there’s the Cloak of Levitation, which is a character in itself. Rather like the magic carpet from Aladdin, it’s both a tool and an ally, with a little ‘personality’ of its own expressed solely through movement. Half the time it’s a more competent fighter than Strange himself, which leads to a lot of very funny moments (especially since Kaecilius is evidently as confused by the turn of events as Strange is).

Which, I suppose brings us to the villain. Alas, despite Mads Mikkleson’s best efforts, Kaecilius is yet another bad guy of the Maleketh / Ronan school, in that he’s really not that interesting. Just generally menacing and dangerous, with a plot to destroy the world. They do at least take the time to invest him with an actual philosophy, which he explains to Strange and which reflects Strange’s own previous views. We’re told that he lost everyone he cared about, but we don’t get to actually see it (or even have it described, as in Civil War). This probably would have been a better choice for a prologue than the one we have; they could have shown Kaecilius mourning, then him meeting the Ancient One, then we cut to Strange. The stage would have been set and the villain given some meat without revealing magic too soon or confusing us with just what was going on. They do give him a bit of personality, though, as in his reaction to the confusion over Strange’s name (“Mr. Doctor.” “It’s Strange.” “Maybe. Who am I to judge?”). For the most part, though, he’s just another bad guy.

What Kaecilius desires is “eternal life as part of the One,” the one being Dormammu, the evil god from the dark dimension. There are some interesting ideas that could be got out of that relative to real religion. It reminds me most of the pantheistic notion of being ‘reabsorbed’ into the deity, as a drop of water into the ocean. But, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, that’s the end of the drop. I also like that the magic of the heroic wizards is basically a “program,” as the Ancient One says; working with the ‘code’ of reality, while the bad guys are communing with an evil spirit, striking a bargain in exchange for power (though this is muddied somewhat by the revelation that the Ancient One has been doing something similar).

Speaking of which, the final confrontation with Dormammu is probably the best part of the film. It’s so cool that I’m not going to describe it, but it’s one of the most creative and clever ways of beating the bad guy I’ve seen in a superhero film; perfectly set up, logical, and unexpected at the same time, while showing that Strange has taken his lesson about humility and compassion to heart.

So, overall, Doctor Strange is a very strong film. The prologue is a problem, the villain is kind of dull, and there are a few other gaps (e.g. why didn’t Kaecillius just take the whole book? And what are the odds Strange would go straight for that book when visiting the restricted section of the library?), but it’s extremely creative, very entertaining, and anchored by a great lead character with a strong, consistent arc, and all leavened with some of the best visuals we’ve seen yet. A solid introduction to a new phase of the MCU.

 

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