Earlier this year Boomer wrote a wonderfully incisive piece on the political reasons he’d be abstaining from watching Doctor Strange until he could conveniently view it for free, thus decidedly not contributing to its already massive profits. So much ink has already been spilled here & elsewhere on the myriad of ways the film fumbled the issue of racial representation in its casting, particularly in the controversy of awarding Tilda Swinton the role The Ancient One, a character that traditionally would be played by an Asian man. Director Scott Derrickson has since admitted in interviews that in trying to avoid the “Fu Manchu” stereotype pitfalls of that character’s source material he had made an even bigger mistake in whitewashing the role, a transgression that many Hollywood productions have been indulging in lately. As Boomer & many others have already covered in their thoughts on Doctor Strange‘s insensitivity to whitewashing & cultural appropriation (not to mention its intenional omission of references to Tibet), including Derrickson himself, it’s no surprise that the film had several glaring problems in the cultural mindfulness department. What has been surprising, though, is that Doctor Strange has been earning very high critical marks outside of that controversy context. Some have even called it one of the best films of the MCU, comparing its wide appeal to the first Avengers film & Guardians of the Galaxy. I personally don’t understand the praise, as its storytelling structure dialed the franchise all the way back to the first Iron Man, with almost a decade of MCU creativity & innovation lost in the process.
The one thing that really worked for me in Doctor Strange was the exact selling point that put my butt in the seat in the first place: the visuals. The film has a kaleidoscopic, Inception-inspired way of folding space & time in on itself to create a psychedelic viewing experience unrivaled in most straightforward action adventures of its ilk. Even within Marvel’s own ranks only the microscopic & subatomic shenanigans of Ant-Man come close. Entire cities geometrically fold over like complicated origami. Galaxies expand, contract, and implode as characters’ astral projections tunnel through them. Time inverts, changes direction, and ties itself in knots as both complications and solutions to the Good vs Evil plot. And yet, for all of Doctor Strange‘s mind-bending, gorgeous, playfully surreal visual treats, the story they support is one of the laziest, most simplistic stabs at hacky comedy & unearned redemption narratives since the lifestyle porn beginnings of this franchise in Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man feature. It’s a dispiriting backslide into the worst corner of the MCU, where an egomaniacal monster is celebrated for his immense skill & wit instead of being shamed as the villainous shit that he so obviously is. I don’t regret catching this film in its IMAX 3D format while it’s still screening at every conceivable cineplex, as it gave me the best possible shot at enjoying what was truly a beautiful application of CG psychedelia. I just left the theater feeling more than a little let down by the story that technology was wasted on.
Heartless ass Stephen Strange is the Western world’s foremost neurosurgeon, a fame-obsessed brute who plays pop music trivia during intense surgical procedures, lives in a fabulously expensive apartment the audience is meant to envy, and scoffs at any philosophical ideas that cannot be explained through logic & modern science. His hubris is temporarily put in check after a violent car wreck destroys his most precious assets: his hands. It’s a classic tale of ironic tragedy that dates back to horror cinema as old as The Monster Maker & The Hands of Orlac, if not further, and Strange intends to right this universal wrong by traveling to Nepal and getting himself some of that good old-fashioned Far East mysticism. He’s shamed & trained into momentary submission by the aforementioned Ancient One, who, while dressed in the garb of a Tibetan monk, is actually a centuries-old Celtic woman, for what little it’s worth. We’re then bombarded with a whole lotta Marvel bloat: two(!) new-to-the-franchise villains, a loyal crew of underserved sidekicks, astral projections, alternate dimensions, space-time continuums, all kinds of nonsense. Before you know it, two post-credits stingers later, the whole thing has blown over without leaving much of anything in its wake.
At the center of all this and, apparently, all things in the Universe is the film’s main problem, Stephen Strange himself. The movie asks, “Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?” with the intent to humble him, but the answer the story gives is that he is Everything. No other character is afforded a second of importance that isn’t in some way tied to Strange’s magnificence. His unconvincing turnaround from badboy heel to crowd favorite babyface is made more important than the potential collapse of the Universe. He immediately masters an ancient art others have been steadily studying for decades, yet his rich white man in the East vacation is supposed to be a humbling spiritual journey. Much like with the irredeemable blowhard cad Tony Stark, the audience is asked to sympathize & laugh along with a jokester bully here, buying into a reformed badboy storyline at a moment’s notice, with no significant behavioral or personality change and a very brief loss of wealth & social status. In my recent dive into the entirety of the MCU, I’ve found that I connect with truly good, sincere superhero archetypes like Captain America much more easily than I do with sarcastic anti-hero villains in superheroes’ clothing like Stark, so my distaste for Dr. Strange as a character is certainly the result of a personal bias. I enjoyed this film well enough on a purely sensory level, but was overall soured by its narrative return to an Iron Man aesthetic. Given the immense popularity of the Iron Man franchise & this film’s early critical praise, I expect to be in the minority on that point, but I’m okay with that.
It’s easy to see on a strategic, Kevin Feige level why Marvel felt the need to bring in Dr. Strange as connective tissue in its ever-expanding universe (well, “multiverse” now, I guess). The psychedelia, witchcraft, and real world magic Strange brings to the table easily makes room for Feige & company to tie in the outer space reaches of Thor, Thanos, and the Guardians with the Earthbound characters of the Avengers and the inner space microverse Ant-Man antics. Why tie all of that narrative glue to a character who both closely resembles a protagonist you’ve already built your franchise around and whose origins are so hopelessly backwards in their racist depictions of Eastern stereotypes that you have to rewrite & whitewash them into a barely more acceptable compromise? There are more Marvel characters than I could ever care to count and surely somewhere in there one of them could’ve been a less problematic and more narratively distinct franchise-unifier. Off the top of my head, my two favorite characters in the Marvel pantheon could’ve easily done the job: Howard the Duck & The Son of Satan. I’d understand how past financial performance would set a bad precedent for Howard’s inclusion (despite his outer space origins & the casual disruption of the rules of reality in his often magical villains), but The Son of Satan could surely carry all of Strange’s multiverse-spanning psychedelia without any of the cultural baggage inherent to his origin story. And these are just two characters I know about, not being at all well-read in the vastness of Marvel folklore.
The point is that if Doctor Strange was such a difficult work to adapt with a culturally sensitive eye, there’s really no reason that it should‘ve been adapted at all. There must have been other, better options. This feels especially true once the cookie cutter mediocrity of the story sinks in. For all of the film’s reality-shifting visual creativity, it winds up feeling like so many Marvel origin stories we’ve already seen in the past, never justifying a necessity for its existence as an isolated property instead of as a connective piece for a franchise, which is a total shame & one of Marvel’s most frequent blunders. Maybe if I had any particular affinity for (the eternally forgettable charisma void) Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor I might be singing a different tune, but even my beloved Tilda Swinton couldn’t save this film from banality and she was backed by some of the most beautifully disorienting imagery I’ve ever seen put to use in action cinema. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.