*. I know I’m hard on Marvel’s superhero movies, but it’s not because I’m against comic books. I read a lot of comics when I was a kid. I even read Doctor Strange. So I was looking forward to this one, just a little.
*. It’s a disappointment. The interesting thing about Doctor Strange, and what would have been a great angle to pursue on film, is that he was a psychedelic superhero. The Eastern mysticism. That cape (didn’t it have a paisley lining at one point?). Those trips to strange dimensions that looked like the inside of a lava lamp with acid-wash backdrops. And last but far from least let’s not forget that in the original comic books the good doctor sported a ’70s porn-star ‘stache. The demonic goatee came later.
*. This isn’t to say that Doctor Strange should have gone the route of ironic ’70s parody transplanted to the present day, like a reawakened Austin Powers or Starsky and Hutch. Though that might have been interesting given Marvel’s increasing tendency toward self-satire (as in Ant-Man and Deadpool). Nor am I just upset that this isn’t the movie I wanted them to make, which is the most useless form of criticism. I’m just registering my sense that something got lost in translation from page to screen and a real opportunity to do something different was missed.
*. In the event, they don’t do anything interesting with the story at all. This is a pretty big problem, and for the Marvel Universe it’s a problem that’s getting worse. We know the script so well. There’s the origin story where we’re introduced to the protagonist who may be rich or whatever but whose life is going nowhere. There is the triggering event and he becomes the Hero, complete with a menu of unique superpowers. Usually there is a girlfriend he returns to but who has trouble relating to him in his transfigured state. The hero often has a mentor figure who helps bring him along. There is a villain who may share a similar back story to the hero, or be from another dimension. Or both. The conclusion involves a spectacular battle where the hero is called upon to make a Christ-like sacrifice to save the humdrum people of the world.
*. Deadpool avoided the formula, at least a bit, by beginning the story in the middle of things and then filling us in by way of flashbacks. It was the same old story, but at least they jazzed up the delivery a bit. No such luck this time.
*. Here we start off with super-surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) getting in a car accident and traveling to Nepal to get his mojo back, and more. The mentor is Tilda Swinton, playing The Ancient One. Strange is a (very) quick study and soon finds himself back at his old hospital where he tries to make up with his ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). She doesn’t understand what’s going on. There’s a plot involving an attempt to open a gateway or portal to another dimension, allowing an evil force named Dormammu to take over the planet. I can’t imagine why Dormammu wants to bother, but whatever. The hero enters the dimensional portal (this was very reminiscent of the end of The Avengers) and sacrifices himself in some kind of temporal loop that traps Dormammu, who decides to call off his plans . . . for now. Also as per Marvel standard operating procedure there are some teasers included in post-credit sequences.
*. So it sticks closely to formula and I have to say that by now that formula is getting pretty stale. But there’s an even bigger problem than this.
*. Magic is a different kind of super power. I think we can all relate, imaginatively, to someone who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Such superheroes are super, but we can still at least understand what they’re doing. They’re running really fast, they’re flying, or they’re hitting things very hard.
*. But a magician is in a different category. Once you begin breaking down the categories of space and time, or the laws of classical physics, then my eyes start to glaze over. Reality becomes plastic, and cities dissolve into Escher-like kaleidoscopes. If our sorcerers can do all this, what can’t they do?
*. It all looks a lot like Inception, which in turn looked like The Matrix. I think The Matrix was the real game-changer here, and not just for its look but for the theory underpinning it. This was that the “reality” experienced by those in the Matrix was really only a bunch of code that an adept like Neo could learn to manipulate, becoming a God in the process.
*. This idea of all reality, or our reality, being only virtual and thus easy to manipulate into novel forms, was also front and center in Transcendence and Lucy (both 2014). Lucy is basically a superhero movie too, with the eponymous character becoming one with the Matrix and thus a God. In Transcendence Johnny Depp experiences the same transfiguration through uploading his consciousness to the cloud.
*. I was reminded of these movies when the Ancient One introduces Strange to the world of magic by telling him that spells can be thought of as “programs” and that they constitute “the source code of reality.” This from the mouth of a supernatural being dispensing wisdom from a martial ashram in Kathmandu. Is nothing sacred?
*. Keeping with this same point, there’s a very odd bit in the script where Strange is taken to task for daring to mess with “the laws of nature.” Huh? Magic is taking the laws of nature and throwing them out of the window. Is his cloak of levitation obeying the laws of nature? The Eye of Agamotto? Are the spectral forms “natural”? Come on.
*. In my notes on Chandu the Magician I made the point that while magic would seem to be a natural fit with film, that’s not how it has ever worked out. Chandu himself was an immensely popular radio hero who, despite great state-of-the-art effects, didn’t translate onto film. Doctor Strange seems to me to be another example of the same thing. Since movies are magic anyway, magic on film is nothing special. It loses its magic.
*. So yes, if you’re into watching various metropoles (New York, London, Hong Kong) getting scrambled like a Rubik’s Cube then you may find this diverting. I didn’t think there was anything interesting in it at all. Dormammu was Sauron from Lord of the Rings, and Kaecilius and his back-up Zealots looked like the three baddies who escape from the Phantom Zone at the beginning of Superman 2. The cast are all pretty good, but they don’t have much to say or do that’s worth attending to. Swinton’s Ancient One actually tells us that “death gives life meaning” before she expires. Somebody got paid to write that.