As much as I think Marvel is nailing the grand political and personal dramas of — for the latest example — Civil War, I find myself enjoying their weirder, more offbeat entries more. Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy were both fun rides, and the latter even got a nice hit of Slither director James Gunn’s style. And now we get Scott Sinister Derrickson’s take on the aptly-monikered Doctor Strange, and it’s another solid entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Uni.. or is it now Multiverse?
While Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy may have expanded the boundaries of Marvel’s storytelling, they were still essentially part of a single “reality”, which has never been enough for their comic-book incarnations. Doctor Strange introduces alternate universes and dimensions, which is a nice fit with the other movies Derrickson is known for, excepting of course the horror angle. This one may be weird, and may give him plenty of chances to show off the ways he can render that weirdness visually, but Marvel is not yet in the business of scaring people.
The titular Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is all but a stereotype by now, as the brilliant neurosurgeon who’s also a egomaniacal jerk. Switch his specialty to obscure diagnoses and you basically have Gregory House all over again, down to the British actor affecting a Northeast American accent. But a horrible car accident — the credits remind the audience that distracted driving is dangerous — renders his hands a quivering mass of scar tissue and surgical pins, destroying the career he’d expected.
In Strange’s obsessive search for some form of rehabilitation, he finds his way to Nepal, and the monastery of Kamar-Taj. There, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) takes him in as a student of her mystical arts, alongside her trusted disciples, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). And, inevitably, Strange is drawn into their struggle to defend the Earth against extra-dimensional threats, like that posed by her estranged student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
Stripped down, the story is relatively straightforward: a jerk learns not to be quite as much of a jerk. But this simple story turns into some spectacular visuals. Strange and his fellow sorcerers conjure mandalas in the air, but these are not the floating filigrees we saw in Warcraft. There is a logic to them, and an almost physical heft as they integrate seamlessly with the action. A reality-warping chase scene looks fantastic, but is nothing to compare to Strange’s first trippy experience of the astral plane. Even the third-act confrontation — traditionally a bit of a weak point for Marvel storytelling — gets turned around. Doctor Strange may not be the Marvel movie I most want to watch, but it’s easily the one I’d most want to inhabit.
Unfortunately, there’s one glaring problem that we have to address. The comic book Doctor Strange falls into a regrettable pattern of “white guy goes to the Orient, learns their ways, and becomes better than all of them”. It was such a common trope that the same charge can be leveled at the Iron Fist adaptation coming to Netflix next March. And specifically the Ancient One of the comics was an old Asian man, which Swinton is pretty clearly not.
I admit that Derrickson was in a pretty impossible situation here. Keeping the character as written would play into a similar stereotype to the Mandarin, which Shane Black only barely subverted in Iron Man 3. He considered just making the character female, but only ended up recreating the Dragon Lady stereotype. I won’t say that there were no other options available, but it seems that Derrickson did the best he could, and he freely admits that there’s a problem here, which is more than most directors would do when faced with criticism.
And to his credit, the film tries hard to avoid Orientalism. The scenes in Kathmandu and Hong Kong are exotic, but not exoticized. Even in Kamar-Taj there is a sense that people do things differently, but they are still there to live their lives and carry out their missions just as much as the residents of the Avengers’ penthouse are.
The script — co-written by Derrickson and his regular collaborator C. Robert Cargill — regularly turns up ways of calling attention to Strange’s biases. In his way, Strange stands in for America in general, as self-important as he is wealthy, rudely awakened to a world that will not always serve his needs first and foremost. He stands to gain much by learning from people and viewpoints radically different from his own, but first he must gain the humility and the presence of mind to pay attention to something outside himself. And though his is the perspective we adopt, the story is not always about him.
It’s not a struggle that he will do more than begin to recognize any more than Derrickson will begin it himself with this movie. Or, lest I claim to have all the answers, any more than I have it figured out. But there’s no need to pity this fine specimen of hypermagical ultraomnipotence. He, and Marvel, are becoming aware of their place in a broader existence. There’s a hell of a good multiverse next door; let’s go.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.