As the 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange has the unique and unenviable task of ushering in what’s known as the MCU’s Phase III, bringing the superhero genre literally into the next dimension. Where Guardians of the Galaxy introduced us to the vastness of space, the challenge of Doctor Strange was to explore the depths of the fourth dimension – time itself – and beyond. Naturally, the movie that aspires to such a feat needs to be a mind-bending, psychedelic trip that would make films like Inception and Interstellar feel as predictable and pedestrian as a 90’s Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks romantic comedy.
Unfortunately, Doctor Strange is not that movie. (Don’t worry, I’m keeping this review spoiler-free.)
Yes, there’s plenty of psychedelic scenes in the film and some massively engineered special effects that will cause you to forget which way is up. There’s definitely a case for watching Doctor Strange in IMAX 3D (if you are into that kind of thing). As a visual spectacle, it is absolutely fantastic but fair warning, it will definitely be too much for those who are susceptible to vertigo or dizzy spells.
But for all the teasing of an adventure into the impossible, perhaps the most impossible thing for this movie was to break the mould of the Marvel superhero origin story. One might say that Doctor Strange borrows a little TOO heavily from the plot of one MCU predecessor in particular.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
Tony Stark Stephen Strange (played perfectly by Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant, self-serving jerk who also happens to be a wildly successful military inventor surgeon with a brilliant mind, and skill that far surpasses most of his peers. As a result, no one likes him. The exception is Pepper Potts Dr. Christine Palmer (an ageless Rachel McAdams) who becomes Strange’s caretaker when a major incident sends shrapnel near his heart crushes his hands and robs him of his career.
Strange pushes Christine – the only person who cares about his selfish ass – away, and instead begins to look for a cure for himself. His journey leads to
his home workshop Kamar-Taj, where he meets Yinsen the Ancient One (the ever-ethereal Tilda Swinton) along with James Rhodes her fellow Masters Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). As a result, he is inadvertently drawn into a battle against his evil counterpart Obadiah Stane Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his zealots.
Okay, so maybe Doctor Strange is not an EXACT replica of Iron Man, but when you contemplate the thin moustaches of the suave and selfish leading man, the tragedy of the redheaded woman who stays by his side but really deserves better, even the unexpected humour from a object with a mind of its own, it’s hard to deny that the similarities between Doctor Strange and 2008’s Iron Man are probably intentional.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Doctor Strange continues the established Marvel tradition of retaining the essence of the main character’s personality and origin, while tweaking details from the source material so as to better fit an almost 2 hour movie. So Stephen Strange, throughout the movie, is exactly how comic fans would expect him to be, while his supporting cast has been adapted and updated for the sensibilities of the modern era – including relocating Kamar-Taj from Tibet to Nepal, presumably to avoid any trouble with cashing in on the China audience.
Now, despite all I’ve said, the movie is actually not BAD. It’s really very good. In fact, if Doctor Strange was Marvel’s first foray into movies and the superhero genre was still very much a niche market, then the inevitable success of this movie would be hailed as the dawn of a new era, where previously obscure superheroes break into mainstream consciousness. But, it is 2016, and Iron Man is already an 8 year old movie, and so Doctor Strange, for all its good work, instead comes across as just another product of Marvel Studios’ moneymaking film formula.
Is this going to be the norm for Marvel, moving forward?
You can no longer dismiss the similarities between the two films as an inevitable artifact of a superhero origin story. Perhaps director and co-writer Scott Derrickson decided that hey, if Iron Man was a winning formula, then why mess with it? The fans want their superhero movie peppered with jokes? Let’s give them humour in spades, even if in Doctor Strange it’s often so forced it’s a little cringe-worthy.
The big question is, as fans of the superhero genre, should we be satisfied with a carbon copy of a plot that’s not even a decade old? And if we are, what kind of signal would we be sending to The Powers That Be at Marvel Studios?
It wouldn’t be a Doctor Strange review if I didn’t talk about the elephant in the room…
And perhaps, most importantly, if this movie does as well as I think it will, what does that say about the impact of the movie’s largely criticised whitewashing?
Because here’s the thing – it’s 2016. We honestly don’t need Stephen Strange – who, at his core, is yet another white male Mary Sue in the MCU. We already have Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor Odinson, Peter Quill, Hank Pym and Scott Lang. But more importantly, we especially don’t need yet another story about how a white male Mary Sue is inherently better than his non-white counterparts. But here we are, back again, retreading essentially the same tired tropes with Doctor Strange. Why?
It seems Marvel’s long figured out that when you take risks, you will get burned at the box office. When you try to do a comic book movie that’s too different from the source material, there will be fan backlash. Is it any wonder that when a director insists on deviating too far from Marvel’s needlessly narrow narrative, they’re easily replaced – case in point, Patty Jenkins and Edgar Wright.
Here’s the real problem with sticking to the script…
So I suppose it isn’t surprising that director and co-writer Derrickson, who has made a career out of helming unique horror movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil, which all deviate from the norm just enough to disappoint the fervent horror movie buff, now decides to stick faithfully to the Marvel formula when working on his first big-budget film. Why rock the boat, after all.
Which ultimately makes his decision to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One so perturbing. Because, after watching the movie, you realise he didn’t need to whitewash the role. Yes, depending on which report you’re reading, the beautifully nuanced and complex role was supposedly written for Tilda. And yes, she was great in it. But are we implying that an actor of colour couldn’t have been just as great in the role?
What’s worse, since it’s very clear that a fair bit of effort was made to creatively subvert several tropes throughout the movie – it’s disappointing that that same level of creativity wasn’t applied to the casting process. This resulted in a slew of white people in the leading roles, while people of colour were largely relegated to supporting characters and background extras.
But, all that said…
The greatest tragedy is that Doctor Strange is, once again, a very good movie and a great starting point for the very small minority of viewers who haven’t and don’t want to catch up with most of the previous 13 MCU films. While there are several easter eggs and callbacks to other MCU films, Doctor Strange is clearly crafted so that it doesn’t alienate any MCU or even Marvel newcomers. So if you don’t know your Agamotto from your Vishanti, you’ve got no reason to worry. Unfortunately, that also means Doctor Strange never gets to be more than a formulaic origin story.