(Mild spoilers herein, but no spoilers for the ending or major conflict.) As hard as it is to pay attention to anything but our new Russian overlords, I actually have done a few things besides fret about politics and bug my reps in the past week. Like hang out with my dad in Manhattan and watch the new Marvel movie Doctor Strange. The character of Doctor Strange was my first exposure to Marvel comics, and I still have a soft spot for him, and the latest movie was far more fun than I had any reason to expect.
I am still annoyed that Oded Fehr didn’t play Strange (a common fancasting on tumblr), and thought that maybe switching Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting would have made for a more interesting movie. I’m still not sure what to think about casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. The Ancient One in the comics is a bald-faced Asian stereotype–the inscrutable zen master–and it was pretty cool to have all the men in the movie looking up to a woman instead. On the other hand, the world does not need more white-washing.
I was also not thrilled about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange because while I think he is both charming in interviews and a good actor with more comic chops than he’s usually allowed to show, he is a bit typecast as the arrogant jerk whose arrogant jerkiness is valorized because he’s good at his job (House, Sherlock in the new incarnations, a million cable news dramas), but the movie undermined that and taught him humility and how to be less of a jerk. Critics have said that Dr. Strange is a low rent Tony Stark, but I think this is a far different character and story than that. When has Tony Stark ever learned humility?
The movie has a low-grade humor that reminds me a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy, and a high-grade weirdness that reminded me of what Inception could have been, had it been more truly about dreams and less of a heist movie. The humor, though, really helped sell it for me. This movie has a goofy premise, and the humor keeps it from feeling too portentous. Perhaps the writers made it funny on purpose to avoid it being unintentionally funny–whatever the reason, it worked, and made this odd world seem more lived-in.
They also remade the character of Wong, another Asian stereotype (this time the pidgin-speaking, totally loyal servant) into a good character in his own right, who is in no way subservient, or even serving, Strange. Rachel McAdams was also wonderful as Strange’s former love interest. She evinces a lot more self-respect and understandable reactions than female love interests often do in Marvel movies. I love me some Pepper Potts, but in the first Iron Man movie, she’s fairly foolish about Tony, and Jane Foster in the Thor movies is cartoonishly silly sometimes. McAdams’s character gets hilarious reactions to the bonkers stuff going on around her that don’t diminish her in any way.
The weirdness in this movie is so great. Fairly early on, The Ancient One forcibly sends Strange on a vision tour that is incredibly trippy and unsettling. CGI often makes movies feel sterile to me; this used CGI to do things that are mind bending and impossible.
There is a fantastic fight scene between a powerful villain and Strange when he is still very much a beginning sorcerer that is so much better than, say, a fight between Iron Man and Captain America, for one because you are actually rooting for one of them, and, more importantly, because the character you’re rooting for is over-matched.
I liked how this movie provided a reason for a wise sage to want to train the arrogant former surgeon who barely believes in magic. It’s not out of the goodness of her heart. In too many stories, jerks find their teachers and their teachers mold them into better people out of the goodness of their hearts, or because, as we’re told but rarely shown, the jerk has a heart of gold somewhere under his prickly exterior. Instead, the Ancient One trains damaged people with nowhere else to turn, making them into her army that holds back chaos and destruction. She doesn’t save people because they deserve it, or save them at all. She takes people who have no other meaning, and gives them meaning so they will serve goodness.
The movie was not without its problems–some pacing issues, and some personal transformations that felt vague or un-earned. Still, it was better than it had any right to be, and I look forward to seeing what happens next for the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m hoping Doctor Doom vs. Doctor Strange: Triumph and Tragedy, one of my favorite super-hero comics of all time.