Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Doctor Strange": review

[NB: I wanted to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, given that "Doctor Strange" has only just come out in theaters, but too much of what I need to discuss requires mentioning important plot points, so there will be spoilers. Apologies in advance.

NB2: I know nothing about the comic-book universe of Doctor Strange, so the mythology is utterly new to me. If you're in the know and you catch me saying something that isn't canon—I'm looking at you, John from Daejeon—write a comment to set me straight.


Let's get the meat of this review out of the way first: how did "Doctor Strange" hit me? I thought it was very entertaining, but I also didn't think the film was perfect. Part of the problem has to do with the movie's shaky internal logic—a nettlesome issue that dogs every film that includes magic in its storyline. If the rules of magic aren't self-consistent, the story immediately becomes less compelling because the self-contradictions become too distracting. Nevertheless, while I didn't think "Strange" was anywhere near as good as "Deadpool," it had excellent qualities, many of which I aim to delve into in this long review.

"Doctor Strange" is a marked departure from the usual Marvel fare, whether we're talking Disney Marvel (Avengers, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, etc.) or Fox Marvel (X-Men, Wolverine, etc.). "Strange" deals with the shadowy milieu of the sorcerers—world-benders who can fight like Shaolin monks and torque reality through sheer force of will. As the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) notes, the Avengers protect the earth from physical dangers; the sorcerers protect our world from metaphysical dangers. "Doctor Strange" stars an American-accented Benedict Cumberbatch as crack neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, a man at the top of his field and, like his hubristic televisual cousin Dr. Gregory House, well aware of how great he is. Also like House, Strange is a diehard rationalist who views spirituality as only so much hocus-pocus. He is, in other words, ripe for humbling and a conversion experience.

Strange works at the hospital with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a former lover. Palmer is an ER surgeon; her work is far less glamorous than Strange's; the latter has the luxury of turning down cases if he feels the impossibility of a clean resolution might somehow besmirch his reputation. Strange gets into a nasty car accident one night after driving way too fast in his Lamborrari; his hands are crushed, and his career as a surgeon is at an end, thereby stopping him and his ego cold. During physical therapy, Strange learns of a man named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who, despite a severe spinal injury that ought to have left him paralyzed, is nevertheless walking around and playing basketball as if nothing were the matter. Strange seeks Pangborn out and learns that, when the usual Western remedies failed, Pangborn turned to Eastern wisdom. He mentions a place in Nepal called Kamar-Taj and wishes Strange good luck.

Strange goes to Kamar-Taj, where he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, again in ethereal-androgynous mode, like her Gabriel in "Constantine"), a Celtic woman in quasi-Buddhist robes who looks suspiciously young for one supposedly so superannuated. Alongside her are top acolyte Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the aforementioned librarian Wong. Strange is given a violently kaleidoscopic introduction to the mysteries of the universes—yes, universes in the plural: it turns out that we live in one of an infinity of universes and dimensions, and one thing that sorcerers do well is learn how to move between and among these esoteric spaces. Strange turns out to have a natural aptitude for this brand of mysticism, and he learns quickly—perhaps too quickly for his seniors' taste as he rapidly discovers, through his own independent research within the ancient texts, the rudiments of how to manipulate time itself—something that must never be done lightly.

Meanwhile, one of The Ancient One's rogue apprentices, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has stolen some pages out of a sacred text that will allow him to summon a godlike entity from the Dark Dimension—a being called Dormammu, who is a malefic incarnation of cosmic hunger and cruelty. Dormammu and the Dark Dimension both reside, as several characters repeatedly say, "beyond time." Kaecilius is convinced that Dormammu can, through his trans-temporal nature, bestow the gift of eternal life to all the time-bound creatures of the earth. The good guys in our story all think Kaecilius is nuts, and it doesn't help that Kaecilius and his cohort of equally fallen acolytes have horrifically deteriorating eye sockets and cheekbones that seem to be a physical manifestation of their inner evil. Stephen Strange, meanwhile, has come into his power quickly, but can he stop Kaecilius and the arrival of Dormammu?


Several reviewers before me have all noted the same thing: "Doctor Strange" borrows many tropes from many movies. The astute, well-rounded viewer will note that the martial-arts fight scenes evoke "The Matrix," for example, and the bending cityscapes will inevitably remind people of similar effects in Christopher Nolan's "Inception."

Dr. Strange's eventual encounter with the imposing Dormammu (voiced, unsurprisingly, by Cumberbatch channeling Smaug)—and within the Dark Dimension, no less—will smack, at least a little, of an episode of "Dr. Who," and Strange's brilliantly comical solution to the Dormammu problem will immediately bring a wildly accelerated "Groundhog Day" to mind.

As Strange comes into his powers and realizes who he truly is, it wouldn't be crazy to read some "Spider-Man" into the proceedings (but without the teenaged whooping with each new discovery), and because Strange is an arrogant rich man on a hero's journey, Batman and Iron Man parallels will be inevitable.

The emphasis on magic, on magical items that choose the wielder (like Strange's seemingly sentient, and ridiculous-looking, cape), will take the viewer back to all the Harry Potter movies, and the way that sorcerers can conjure blades and shields will remind the viewer of Green Lantern and his very similar powers.

The trippy slalom through twisting worlds and dimensions will spark in some the desire to get high and enjoy the ride the way people did for 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey," although the phantasmagoric spectacle in "Strange" has a completely different purpose and isn't one long, unbroken sequence. In "2001," the Bowman-in-the-stargate segment is practically a story in itself; Dr. Strange's several plunges into different corners of the multiverse are special-effects sequences that all forward the plot in some way: they're not merely light shows whose purpose can be summed up in a single sentence.

Of course, the overall arc of the story is an obvious hero's-journey narrative, with all of Joseph Campbell's elements in place: a call to adventure, a threshold guardian, a wisdom figure, special weapons and armor, a trip or two into a labyrinth, a soul-altering confrontation, and the eventual bringing of a boon to the hero's people. All the steps are there, clear as day.


Before I get critical about the film, though, I do want to reemphasize that I was mightily entertained by it. A ton of credit has to go to director Scott Derrickson, who apparently relied heavily on the artwork of comics giant (and recluse) Steve Ditko, whose visual styling Derrickson was at pains to respect, preserve, and convey to modern audiences. For me, the most marvelous thing about "Doctor Strange" is the excellent visual storytelling. Derrickson got an amazing proportion of the film right in terms of guiding the viewer's eye smoothly along every action sequence such that the viewer never loses track of what's happening, despite a million things happening at once. This level of direction is easily on a par with that of George Miller in "Mad Max: Fury Road" (reviewed here); I respect any director who can throw so many disparate objects at the screen and somehow make that visual maelstrom into something comprehensible.

The story's construction also deserves praise: this is a Marvel film, so, unlike those dreary and lugubrious DC films, the story beats are buoyed along by plenty of humor, especially during the fight sequences. This is the most hilarious combat I've seen since "Deadpool" earlier this year, and the silent star of the show isn't human: it's Dr. Strange's animated cape, which reminds me of nothing so much as a faithful dog protecting its master. The fight choreography is also a bittersweet reminder that, at long last, we're finally witnessing some real wizard battles—not the telekinetic stone-throwing of the Star Wars films, nor the vaguely laser-like wand battles in the Harry Potter movies. In "Strange," we've got actual conjuring going on—arcane, sparking, flaring symbols etched in the air and coruscating with power, each such phenomenon an expression of its wielder's personal might. This, folks, is magic done right.

The actors all hit their marks as well. I read a review or two that said Cumberbatch's American accent was a little too reminiscent of Hugh Laurie's Yank stylings as Gregory House, but I wasn't bothered by it, and I didn't really hear echoes of Laurie, anyway. Cumberbatch infuses his performance with the right amounts of gravitas, arrogance, and wit; he inhabits his character so fully that, in my mind, he is now inseparable from it, just as I can no longer hear the words "Iron Man" without immediately thinking of Robert Downey, Jr. The man is the brand—at least for me.

Mads Mikkelsen, whom some reviewers thought was ill-served by the script, did a fine job as the villainous Kaecilius. In many ways, his character was a mirror for Strange: arrogant, self-serious, and capable of a similar level of humor and wit. I also disagree that his character was cheated out of more screen time: on the contrary, the movie opens with a Kaecilius scene (when he steals crucial pages from an ancient tome after beheading the previous librarian), and Kaecilius pops up at plenty of moments during the film's entire run time.

Rachel McAdams, who must be getting tired of always landing roles opposite Sherlock actors (she played opposite Robert Downey in both of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock films, and Cumberbatch stars as Sherlock in the British series "Sherlock"), does yeoman's work as Christine Palmer. We live in the post-feminist era, so even though Palmer witnesses magical wormholes and astral-projection battles, she never once faints. Today's women are too tough for that old-time nonsense. McAdams gives Christine a heart: she still loves Stephen, despite how big of an asshole he can be. They might not be a couple now, but there's hope for them.

Tilda Swinton, dressed in Buddhist-ish robes that aren't the right color for the Buddhism in the region, nevertheless gives off an aura that I found quite familiar given my own encounters with Western Buddhist nuns living and studying in Korea.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Mordo, reveals the layers of faithfulness and pain that have made Mordo who he is: someone who so rigidly follows the code that he will never bend, but he can break. In the comic books, Mordo becomes one of Strange's enemies, and we see the beginnings of that in the requisite end-credits sequence when Mordo, having lost faith in The Ancient One, darkly concludes that the world has "too many sorcerers."

I also have to tip my hat to Marvel itself; the quality of its films has been generally good if not entirely consistent. I'm not a fan of the Thor movies, both of which leave me cold, but they were watchable. I've enjoyed the Hulk-related stand-alone films, although none of them has been particularly compelling. The Captain America films (first, second, and third) have all been solidly entertaining, infused with some surprisingly right-wing social commentary. I very much enjoyed the first Avengers movie, but the second movie, while enjoyable, wasn't anywhere near as good. "Deadpool," as far as I'm concerned, takes the cake for me: it's the best Marvel movie ever, and as I told my buddy Tom on my way out of the theater, Marvel can never go back to doing conventional movies after having done "Deadpool." You can't pile up that much spectacular gore and raunchy blood-sex-excrement comedy and then expect to retrogress to the same, lame, tame, PG-rated days of older comics. So "Doctor Strange" is definitely in the spirit of not going back: it's distinctively a Marvel product, but it's also covering ground not covered in any previous Marvel film. I'm grateful for that.


But despite all of the above praise, I didn't think "Doctor Strange" was a perfect film. It had problems, some of which were major. First, like many other reviewers, I agree the story arc was generally fairly boilerplate. In the "kudos" section above, I noted how the film was a standard hero's-journey narrative; this works both for and against the film, making some story beats predictable, such as the inevitable loss of the film's wisdom figure. And while I praised the film's greatest asset—its visual storytelling—I'd be remiss if I didn't note that "Dr. Strange" is also a painfully talky film, filled with lines upon lines of expository dialogue. All of that dialogue, taken together, constitutes multiple violations of one of the most fundamental laws of storytelling: show, don't tell.

I suppose, if I'm to be charitable, one reason for all the exposition is that audiences unfamiliar with the comic-book universe of Dr. Strange will need a Cliff's Notes primer to get them up to speed. The problem, as you might anticipate, is that when the exposition lays out the rules of magic and interdimensional conjuring and travel, the audience will now expect a measure of logicality and self-consistency. Being a scientific skeptic myself, despite my love of and respect for religion, I was circumspect about where the movie was going to take us, mystically speaking. Basically, it took us into Marvel's version of mysticism, which has little to do with esoteric practice here on our actual earth. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the mysticism in Dr. Strange has almost no religious underpinnings at all; if anything, it's a close cousin of the weird sci-magic we get in the Thor movies, which strive to make magic seem scientific. Despite the Buddhist trappings, we never see any Buddhist practice inside Kamar-Taj (we do see prayer wheels outside the compound when Strange casually spins them while walking through a Nepalese town), and while much of the magical gesturing seems modeled on Taoist or pre-Taoist yin-yang imagery, we don't get to hear much, if anything, in the way of Taoist philosophy. What wisdom we do receive strikes me as generic New-Age rhetoric, not belonging to any particular tradition.

I was also disappointed in our glimpse of the Dark Dimension for two reasons. First: the visuals. The Dark Dimension, part of which erupts in the midst of Hong Kong, where the sorcerers maintain one of their three sancta, looks hilariously like a jumble of gigantic neurons with dendrites and axons of neon-looking cotton candy. I can only imagine that this was Steve Ditko's original vision of the Dark Dimension, which must have worked for teenaged comic-book audiences back in the day. Personally, I found it ludicrous—utterly impossible to take seriously. This is the alternate universe that lies beyond time and is consumed with evil hunger? Ha! This looks more like the realm of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." Dormammu himself is little more than a giant, rippling face with two flaring, evil eyes. I was partly reminded of fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson's vision of Lord Foul the Despiser, the devil-figure in his several "chronicles" of Thomas Covenant the leper-hero. In Donaldson's world, Lord Foul is, for most of the story, just a pair of flaring eyes. Dormammu has those eyes, but he's also got a face that, as it ripples, looks a bit like a cross between Thanos's face and the deep-voiced, baby-faced "deus ex machina" from "The Matrix Revolutions."

The visuals lead to my second complaint: if the Dark Dimension is supposedly "beyond time," then there's no way for a human mind to grasp what that might look like. When Strange confronts Dormammu in Dormammu's own dimension, the two actually talk to each other, which is only possible if there are things like distance, sound, light, and other sorts of motion—all phenomena that are spatiotemporal in nature. How can Dormammu even do anything in a dimension that lies beyond time? What does it even mean to be beyond time?

This was, I think, one of the story's greatest failures. Christopher Nolan, in "Interstellar," came very close to conveying, through visual language, a set of very abstract concepts. While I thought his story bogged down in "love is a natural transcendent force like gravity" hokeyness, I think Nolan did about as good of a job as could have been done in reaching for ideas that are, at heart, cosmically inexpressible. Marvel, being Marvel, still wants to paint simple tableaux in primary colors, so the Dark Dimension just comes off looking painfully corny. And because the Dark Dimension looks and functions the way it does, this creates a huge problem when Dr. Strange's solution to Dormammu's invasion of Earth is to trap himself and Dormammu in a "Groundhog Day"-style time loop that can potentially go on forever unless Dormammu repents of his attack and quits the premises. Basically, my beef is this: how can the time-loop strategy work in a dimension that is supposedly beyond time? That made absolutely no damn sense at all. You can't fight the atemporal with the temporal.

My last complaint is that Michael Giacchino scored this movie. I loved Giacchino's work in "The Incredibles," in which he seamlessly wove together themes from both the superhero genre and the spy genre. Since those heady days, though, the quality of his output has gone steadily downhill. I felt that his "Star Trek" theme for the 2009 JJ Abrams movie, while undeniably catchy, was beaten to death through a thousand repetitions, and the themes didn't get any better in the subsequent films. In "Strange," Giacchino's music is pretty much unrecognizable as Giacchino's own: if anything, it sounds as if the man is doing a watered-down Danny Elfman impression. And that's really too bad because I'm convinced Giacchino has talent, as he proved when scoring "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol."


For a silly cream-puff of a superhero movie, "Doctor Strange" has some interesting themes, and they aren't necessarily the ones you'd associate with this genre. One theme is humility: Strange has to undergo the utter deconstruction of his ego before he can attain true mastery of time and realities. Another theme is time and its preciousness: Strange is told, at a couple points throughout the film, that messing with the space-time continuum is hazardous at the level of universes, and thus is never to be done lightly. As writer Stephen R. Donaldson, mentioned above, noted in his Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, time is what allows things to happen in sequence. It's an essential part of the fabric of reality, the principle that undergirds cause and effect. If Strange has mastered time by the end of the movie, then he is truly in possession of a godlike power. We get a hint of this power when, during a climactic scene, we witness time flowing in two directions at once. (Relax: it's actually more understandable than it sounds.)

Surprisingly missing from this movie, as themes go, is that of friendship and family, which was absolutely integral to the plot of "Guardians of the Galaxy," and which fuels the interactions in the Avengers movies. Stephen Strange has no real friends; Christine is a former lover, but her relationship with Strange is currently in flux and in doubt. Strange enters Kamar-Taj and trains; he becomes acquainted with various teachers, acolytes, and fellow trainees, but none of these people is really a friend. In that sense, this is something of a bleak film. Many of the characters around Strange are deeply compassionate and committed to protecting the earth, but their sense of purpose overrides any warmth or depth of feeling.

I'm tempted to say that science versus magic/mysticism/religion is another theme of "Doctor Strange," but in reality, it's not. First, as noted above, there's nothing particularly religious about the mysticism that Strange encounters and plunges into. Second, the movie resolves the science-versus-mysticism question very quickly in favor of mysticism: logical positivism and reductive materialism are but paltry worldviews in the eyes of The Ancient One: as she tells Strange, seeing the world through the eyes of science is like "looking through a keyhole" and wanting to see and understand more.


The movie covers many bases, but the more it explains, the more questions there are. For instance: Strange learns to manipulate reality such that he can, like other sorcerers, create wormhole-like portals to cross quickly from one part of the world to another. So why doesn't this level of reality-manipulation lead to an ability to heal his damaged hands? Strange learns of two people who spent time at Kamar-Taj; there's the basketball-playing Pangborn, mentioned much earlier in this review, who underwent a measure of training, then stopped when he learned how to walk again (he didn't regenerate his nerves, but he does use magic to allow the broken part of his spine to transmit nerve impulses from his brain to his lower body). And another trainee is mentioned by The Ancient One—someone who had the choice of either self-healing or world-saving. The movie seems to imply that, in theory, Strange could heal his own hands and return to his life as a neurosurgeon, but it would be at the cost of throwing away the person he has become: a world-guardian, a sorcerer.

Librarian Wong notes that sorcerers must never interfere with the flow of natural law, which is what makes playing with the timestream so hazardous. During the wizard-battle sequences, reality is bent and twisted and fractalized in all sorts of different ways, but we mere mortals seem not to notice when our cities get turned into toroidal landscapes, and our streets become Escher-like constructions with the world's most bizarrely impossible traffic patterns. (This is very much like how magic operates in the world of Harry Potter: Muggles, i.e., non-magical folks, are blissfully unaware of the powers at work around them.) So my question is this: how is all this reality-bending not a violation of natural law?

I have religious questions as well. Astral projection figures prominently in the film: this involves the projection of the soul, or "astral body," out from the material body. Is "Doctor Strange" saying we all have souls? If Kamar-Taj is any sort of Buddhist temple, this is going to be somewhat problematic, as Buddhism normally teaches the doctrine of anatman, i.e., no-soul. (Read a short discourse on Hindu reincarnation versus Buddhist rebirth here.) And if it's true we all have souls, this insight ought to provide significant comfort to all the good people in the world. Of course, when The Ancient One dies after her fight with Kaecilius, her astral body disappears the moment she expires. Does this mean that the astral body is as mortal as the physical body, i.e., the astral body is not an indestructible soul?


"Doctor Strange" proved wildly entertaining, but also frustratingly puzzling. It alternated between amazingly deft visual storytelling and an avalanche of rule-violating expository dialogue. It featured clear, comical action sequences and astounding visuals, but it also showed a disappointing lack of imagination in its portrayal of the supposedly trans-temporal Dark Dimension while also leaving the viewer with a very confused picture of Marvel-multiverse metaphysics. All in all, I give the film a thumbs-up for generally getting the basics right.

This is a popcorn movie, and there are plenty of laughs. Despite Stephen Strange's aloneness and general friendlessness, there are hints that his character will continue to humanize in subsequent films. I'm glad that Marvel put out a movie that broke new ground; the universe of "Doctor Strange" isn't our Earth or Thor's Asgard: it's its own thing, with its own wonders and dangers, and despite the kaleidoscopic confusion, this story is a solid foundation on which to build several more—hopefully better—stories.


John from Daejeon said...

Sorry, I can't help you. I was never a fan of this tertiary "Marvel" character. Occasionally, he would pop up in an issue of my Spider-Man, Captain America, X-Men, or one of Spider-Man's or the X-Men's numerous spinoff tittles, but I never cared for him. Sort of like Namor the Sub-Mariner or Silver Surfer in my book. That isn't to say I don't love many of Marvel's lesser titles. I really can't wait for a Cable/Domino movie or The Black Cat and Silver Sable starring in their own big screen adaptations. Hell, I'd love to see either Scarlet Witch or Black Widow leave the Avengers for a one-shot or two. At least I have Ms. Marvel to look forward to soon with a little-known Oscar winner portraying her.

Instead of "Dr. Strange," I think I'll just re-watch my favorite "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends" episode,
Spidey Meets the Girl From Tomorrow.

Damn, I just found out Spider-Man 2099 is back in print with Peter David penning the stories. I guess I now have to track down 17 back issues.

Charles said...

Just saw this yesterday with the wife. We both enjoyed it. I agree that the whole "dimension beyond time" thing is problematic, but I wonder how that could have been done so that it would have made sense. I am tempted to argue that, because we can't actually conceive of a dimension without time, it is impossible for us to depict that encounter in any way that would make sense.

Honestly, though, when I'm watching a Marvel film (or most films, actually), I tend to turn off the part of my brain that demands rationality in everything—it's not until afterward that I start to think about the holes. But character-related blips do slip through from time to time. It was a fairly minor bit, but after Christine saves Strange's life in the hospital, he tells her exactly what is going on... and she doesn't believe him. Wait. You just saw your ex-boyfriend's astral self project itself into space as you were operating on his body. Why is it so hard to believe that there is an evil sorcerer bent on destroying the world? That's probably super nit-picky, but that hit a completely wrong note with me.

On the astral body vs. soul issue, I don't think the film is equating the two—at least, I did not get that impression. As you mentioned, the Ancient One's astral projection disappears when her body dies. We also saw the reverse of that, when Strange obliterated one of the zealot's astral projections, thus killing him in the real world. In the sense that the astral projection appears to capable of existing separate from the material, it is similar to the soul, but it does not seem to be able to survive the death of the material body, and vice versa. That is, the astral body can leave the material body for a time, but the two are still connected (Strange was able to obliterate the zealot's astral body because of electricity that had been pumped into his material body). In folklore, the astral body is thought of as being connected to the material body by a silver thread, and cutting that thread leads to death. In that regard, the astral projection seems more like what hackers project into the Matrix in the eponymous film series.

Just some quick thoughts before I get back to work...

Kevin Kim said...


Great points, all. I'll probably buy this when it comes out on home video.