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Question Club: Breaking down the good, bad, and awkward of Doctor Strange

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Back in 2013, when Marvel Studios first confirmed that a Doctor Strange movie would be part of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe story, fans reacted with the usual mix of celebration and cynicism about whether the Sorcerer Supreme would work on film. Plans for a Doctor Strange movie have been kicking around since at least the mid-1980s, but the various rights-holders couldn’t figure out how to make the character work on-screen. And no wonder. There are fantastical elements to MCU characters like The Hulk and Captain America, but their films still give them scientific origins, and ground them in relatively modern, familiar worlds. Even Thor is now an extradimensional visitor rather than an actual mythic god. But Doctor Strange is rooted in a fuzzier and more mystical universe, inspired by a 1930s radio serial and heavily infused with the trippy, druggy mysticism of his 1960s and 1970s heyday. There was always a question of how to make him work as a modern character, and how to fit him into an ongoing storyline that’s been more concerned with artificial intelligence, drone technology, and advancing weapons tech than with the forces of malign magic.

But critics generally admired the movie — it holds a 72 rating at Metacritic, and a 90 at the less-selective Rotten Tomatoes — and its opening-weekend worldwide box-office take, a respectable $325 million, speaks to fans’ interest and respect for the series. (The real test will come over the next couple of weeks, as we see what kind of repeat viewings it gets.) That said, we certainly walked away from the film with a lot of questions. So in Question Club, we ask each other about the parts of the movie we most loved or hated, the things we most want to know about how other people reacted to the film. Warning: Significant spoilers ahead.


Is the cinematic Doctor Strange a Tony Stark clone?

Kwame: We’re at a point in the Marvel canon where we have to recognize how formulaic things have gotten. Origin stories in this universe tend to follow similar beats, where the hero earns great power after suffering some physical or personal loss, and must defeat a dark mirror image of themselves. Iron Man created that template way back in 2008, and Doctor Strange is essentially Iron Man with magic. Think about it: Tony Stark is a brilliant but self-interested prick who, after a heart injury and the loss of a friend, eventually learns how to be a moderately selfless superhero. Likewise, Stephen Strange is a brilliant but self-interested prick who, after a hand injury and the loss of his mentor, eventually learns how to be a moderately selfless superhero. They’re both arrogant geniuses with no respect for authority who are just as likely to inadvertently endanger the planet as they are to save it. That also makes them complex and compelling characters, but you can only have so many of these guys running around.

Tasha: The parallels didn’t bother me, because their very similar journeys take them in different directions. Tony Stark is largely self-reliant, generating his salvation out of his own genius. Strange has to rely on other people, literally begging them to make him part of their collective. Stark’s moral choices become entirely black and white — choose profit or people? Kill terrorists to save children, or focus on banging journalists? — while Strange has to deal with muddier questions about compromise, and the meaning of the cosmic rules. And frankly, while they’re both arrogant jerks who need to redeem themselves through heroism, Stark is a fun jerk, with plenty of smartass quips and swagger, while Strange is a sullen, superior jerk who can’t pull off a simple joke. Stark is obsessed with the one woman he can’t have; Strange puts the one woman who would have him at arm’s length. And by the end of their debut movies, Stark’s a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist rock-star, while Strange is an isolated hermetic, burdened with responsibility, and still physically broken, due to an accident he caused by being incredibly stupid and reckless. He hasn’t achieved any of his goals, he’s just supplanted them. Their characters and arcs are certainly similar — I got a kick out of Bryan’s review, where he observed that they both even get their power from a glowing energy source on their chest — but I don’t find that so surprising or alarming, given how many superheroes are cut from similar cloth.

Bryan: I think to be a full-fledged clone, he would have to be as entertaining as Tony Stark. And as you both suggest, Doctor Strange is anything but. His jokes are flat, and his arrogance is more detestable than Stark’s brand of churlish roguishness. For whatever reason, Stephen Strange isn’t even as charming as Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. Which is frustrating, because we know just how entertaining Cumberbatch can be when he’s chewing this kind of scenery. But I lay that on the story, more than just his performance — because Stephen Strange doesn’t really go through any kind of transformation that makes him more human. That was the trick with Iron Man; aside from pure charisma, Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark was actually humbled, and recognized it. He decided to revisit the ways in which he thought about the world. In Doctor Strange, we have a lead character presented with an analogous dilemma: he can learn about magic and mysticism to help himself, or to help others. But Strange doesn’t really make a choice. He just gets wrapped up in some adventures, and then he goes on a superhero’s quest seemingly because he found a magic cape. Did Marvel Studios want Doctor Strange to be a Tony Stark clone? Absolutely. Did they succeed. Not even close.


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Does the movie do enough to refresh Marvel’s origin story formula?

Bryan: It isn’t just the Stark archetype that Marvel’s overusing — it’s the entire concept of the origin story at this point. Roughly speaking, you could swap out Iron Man for Ant-Man for Doctor Strange for the first Captain America film, and there wouldn’t be a lot of difference. There’s an argument for this: Marvel has a rich legacy of characters, and many of their origin stories happen to be strikingly similar. Given that time-tested formula, why shouldn’t they just stick with what works? Comics fans already know the characters’ backstories anyway, and straying too far from canon would feel like a slight against fans and the characters.

But Marvel Studios is injecting new characters into new films on a twice-a-year schedule, and at that rate, what could play like familiar resonance starts feeling like a tired rehash. If you see Marvel less as a company running down a checklist of character introductions, and more as a standalone movie studio devoted to telling one giant, 50-hour-plus interconnected tale, it’s up to them to make every film — even origin stories — intriguing and original in their own right. Doctor Strange gives us some trippy visuals and a novel ending, but the fact that either of these first two questions is up for debate at all suggests that the film isn’t as fresh as it wants to be.

Kwame: I think the most remarkable thing about these later-stage Marvel movies is how, even if they resemble each other on a nuts-and-bolts level, they often try to stand apart because of the genres they draw from. Ant-Man is a heist movie, Captain America: Winter Soldier is a ‘70s-style political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy is an ‘80s space opera, Jessica Jones is feminist neo-noir, so on and so forth.

With that in mind, Doctor Strange is a supernatural fantasy movie (infused with some troubling Eastern mysticism it does its level best to downplay, which we’ll get back to). The magic and spellcasting mean we get beautiful visuals unlike anything seen in a previous Marvel movie, but… the movie is called Doctor Strange. Out-there ideas about other dimensions was always going to be par for the course. The important thing is what this embrace of magic and an infinite multiverse means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. As a standalone movie, the movie is a typical superhero story. But as a specific moment in a larger meta-narrative, it’s a game-changer. What does it mean that Doctor Strange will inevitably team up with Thor? Remember when we learned that Janet Van Dyne got trapped in the microverse in Ant-Man? Will Strange be able to find her? What will Doctor Strange do with all his newfound powers, and how will he deal with the immense, morally gray responsibilities that come with them? These are bigger questions that the film never addresses, and since I’ve seen every Marvel movie, I’m invested. I just don’t know that anyone other than a diehard Marvel fan would or even could be.

Tasha: For me, this one isn’t even a question. Yes, this is the story of a pompous man who falls from grace, is given a great gift, reevaluates his life, and becomes a hero (or maybe a supervillain, if you cock your head a little to the left). Yes, that’s a familiar archetype. But just because a lot of stories are built on these bones doesn’t distract from how different the flesh is here, visually and conceptually.


Do you think the humor was necessary or effective?

Tasha: Humor has been such a necessary part of MCU stories, and it’s helped them create enjoyable, distinctive characters, and lose the self-important oppressiveness that’s making DC’s superhero films such a slog. But I don't think the humor plays well here, both because it’s so underemphasized that it barely lands, and because it feels forced into a character who doesn’t otherwise seem like a quipster. Stephen Strange’s trauma-fueled transition from smug egotist into grim, bitter bully gives the film its drama. His inconsequential Beyoncé jokes seem out of character, and they undermine the portrait the writers are trying to build. I appreciated the humor when it wasn’t coming from him, like when his cape starts wiping his face while he’s trying to look fierce, and he has to bat it away. But mostly, I would have been fine with dropping the attempted laugh lines in this film.

Kwame: I think the film’s bad humor had everything to do with Strange being a poor vehicle for it. The Cloak of Levitation was genuinely funny. Rachel McAdams does some heavy lifting, contending with how absurd all of this mystical craziness must look to any outside onlooker. And Tilda Swinton is so quietly hilarious as the Ancient One. She has so much grace and power in that role, and you can tell that the character is having so much fun screwing with Strange. During that entire violent trip through the multiverse early on in the film, I imagined her just standing there smirking her head off. And I get real joy out of that image.

Bryan: I also largely found fault with the jokes when they came from the Doctor himself. The humor in this film felt completely out of place, and it worked against the gravitas of the mystical elements. It reminded me a little of my feelings about Suicide Squad, actually. That film was clearly designed, at one point, to be dark and serious, but at some point in its lifecycle, it acquired an unnecessary layer of comic sheen. It certainly felt like the kind of thing a studio would add to make things more palatable for viewers who might not be ready for a transdimensional magical time-warper. But it fell flat for me.


Doctor Strange promotional still Marvel Studios

Did the big central special effects work for you?

Tasha: The fractal city-folding effects in the Mirror Dimension have been such a focus of the lead-up campaign, and they’re dazzling on-screen, but I seem to have missed the part where the story justifies them in any way, either as something The Ancient One’s order should be able to do, given their brand of magic, or as something the Mirror Dimension should enable. I know, I know, the fact that I spent so much of this film thinking “Okay, yes, but why?” is the kind of thing that drives “Shut up and turn your brain off” types crazy. How did you react to the visuals in Doctor Strange?

Bryan: I agree with absolutely everything you just said… but they were still some of my favorite moments of the movie. The ease of execution and utter commitment to weirdness that those visuals represented charmed me. It was the exact opposite of the humor situation; director Scott Derrickson felt no need to pull back on any of those sequences, and I found real joy in those moments. That said, I would never argue that they were wholly original. I kept thinking, “Hey, the filmmakers liked Inception just as much as I did! And they liked 2001, too!” There’s something significant to be taken from the fact that movies with much less expansive versions of these same ideas are still so infinitely memorable to us, even when new films riff on them and turn the volume up to 11. Still, I enjoyed those sequences in the moment.

Tasha: I found the fractal expansions and the segmentation of the cities entirely dazzling, but there’s one MCU effect that just keeps not working for me: the clear moment when a running or jumping human becomes a running or jumping wireframe character. And there’s a ton of that here, as characters leap from vertical walls to horizontal floors, and change their flexibility and presence mid-leap. For me, those effects still haven’t entirely left the Uncanny Valley.


Doctor Strange doesn't have a complete character arc. What does that mean?

Kwame: It’s obvious that in this film, we’re watching how Stephen Strange, gifted surgeon, become Stephen Strange, master sorcerer. But his character arc is undefined and incomplete. When we’re introduced to him at the film’s outset, we learn that he’s fundamentally selfish and self-obsessed. By the end, we’re supposed to believe he’s a good person. But while he’s found something new to be awesome at, it’s not clear how he turned that corner. The movie reads more as a story about a guy finding a new profession than a guy redeeming himself.

Tasha: I’m not sure we’re supposed to believe he’s become a good person. The Ancient One gives him the old blah-blah about letting go of his ego, and I think we’re expected to see his endless-death answer to Dormammu as him learning that lesson, and becoming selfless and self-sacrificing. But casually shrugging off death itself is also the ultimate ego-trip, isn’t it? Showing off how superior he is to a godlike entity of pure chaos and malice isn’t really that different from showing off how superior he is to Dr. Nicodemus West in the opening. It’s just a matter of scale, and of the pain he experiences.

And I don’t think that’s a problem. In terms of what it all means, I think it means Marvel is starting to feel safe without an entirely happy ending, which is great. And this is just a chapter in an ongoing story. If the MCU didn’t exist, this would be an oddball film about how an arrogant asshole was handed immense power for treating other people like trash and shrugging off all civilized limits to his behavior. (See also the 2009 Star Trek reboot, before the later Trek movies clarified jerk-Kirk’s arc.) Instead, it’s clearly an opening chapter that leaves Strange unsatisfied, with his goals unmet, a couple of bitter enemies gunning for him, and duties he’s only marginally ready for. As both the mid-credits and post-credits stingers remind us, the story will just get bigger from here.

Even though the ending doesn’t fully stand on its own, I think this makes Doctor Strange more interesting (and less Iron Man-like) than it would have been if Strange had dropped his attitude, become humble and lovable, and fixed his hands by the end of the film. For one thing, he wouldn’t be the aloof, haughty Doctor Strange we know from the comics, he’d be just another earnest do-gooder superhero.

Bryan: It would definitely be a more interesting, challenging take than we got in the original Iron Man, but I’d argue that Doctor Strange doesn’t give enough of a fully realized arc to qualify as a first chapter. I come at it from the point of view of having never read a Doctor Strange comic, and this movie didn’t really leave me with a feeling about where this character was going, except into some godawful comedy routines with Thor, which felt like a Super Bowl spot. Being incomplete with promise is one thing. On the whole, I felt Doctor Strange simply assumed I knew where it was going, who everybody was, and that I should care about them getting there. (I keep returning to the reveal of the cape. When I saw it, the fan-heavy audience cheered. But the movie itself never even attempts to set the cape up — leaving me wondering how I ended up with such a fashion-forward audience.)

The one character who deviates from that? Mordo. Chiwetel Ejiofor nails it as a guy who’s been following in blind faith, only to have that ripped away from him in such a cataclysmic way that it permanently transforms his worldview. I knew where he came from, what he believed, and where he was going at the end. Essentially, he was a real character — and the only one I walked away from the movie really thinking about.

Kwame: Ejiofor’s Mordo might be the best thing to come out of the movie, when it comes to presenting us with characters we’re expected to accept as “complex” at face value. Strange is “complex,” but he’s only halfway toward a real shift in his character. The Ancient One is “complex,” but her decisions are never fully explored, because she dies before they can be. Mordo is genuinely complex because he has real drives underpinned by past experiences, and seeing his worldview torn down forces him to change. I’m really looking forward to seeing him again as this franchise grows.


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Was the movie effective in opening the door for the MCU’s crazier, trippier concepts?

Bryan: We’ve got a big purple dude coming in the next couple of movies, and in a world that’s largely been grounded in some kinda-sorta science the appearance of Thanos has the potential to be a big problem. Smartly, Marvel’s been getting moviegoers there in baby steps, with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy gradually expanding what a Marvel movie can look and feel like. Strange ups that ante — and despite my issues with the movie, I do think it does a great job of selling the Metaverse and all the other far-out concepts as something that can be grounded and believable. Is it effortless? Not really. The moment when somebody walks up at the end and just casually mentions that the Eye of Agamotto is powered by an Infinity Stone was almost comically clunky, but I think it’s hard to deny that we’re far, far away from building a metal suit out of scrap in Afghanistan — and audiences are fine with it.

Tasha: I’m dubious on this one. By the end of this film, our understanding of the larger mystical world of Marvel amounts to “There are other dimensions, all of them look like acid trips, and some of them are bad.” I would have preferred it if the film had devoted just a little more time to the fairly fascinating idea that the Ancient One and her followers fuel their powers by stealing energy from other dimensions. (What are the consequences for those other dimensions? Does the Kamar-Taj crowd care about them, or about any sort of cosmic balance, or do they just regard all other dimensions as a generic battery for their enjoyment?) And given Doctor Strange’s thematic exploration of following the rules vs. ignoring the rules because it’s an emergency, I think we should have gotten some sort of sense of the downside of time travel. We’re told that Strange playing around with an apple could rip the multiverse apart — and then there are no consequences whatsoever for him full-on playing God with the timestream. If I had more confidence that a later film would address what any of this means, I’d be fine with it here. But as is, we’re left with a cosmology that’s inconsistent and underdeveloped, and amounts to “sorcerers make pretty lights with their hands.” Here’s hoping we go deeper down the line.


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Okay, this is all pretty dour. What’s the upside?

Tasha: This is all pretty reserved praise — or in Bryan’s case, unreserved annoyance — for a wacky, highly energized movie that I personally enjoyed a great deal. I was hugely dubious about any effort to put Doctor Strange on-screen, given the basic story’s regressive stereotypes, druggy cosmic nonsense, and distance from the rest of the world the MCU has been building. And I’m still a little uncertain that Strange is really going to fit into that universe well, given the scale differential — Captain America is throwing punches, repping Brooklyn, and obsessing over saving one old buddy, while Strange is turning back time itself to defend the entire earth against a hungry shadow-dimension that’s already killed him countless times.

But that said, I found Doctor Strange impressive and surprising. Kaecilius was actually a convincing villain. One of the weakest points of any MCU movie has traditionally been the “villain justifies himself” speech (for instance, Ultron explaining that he somehow needs to kill everyone to save humanity), but Kaecilius’ speech actually made sense to me. He doesn’t want to be mortal, and he doesn’t want arbitrary limits on his power set by a hypocrite who’s hoarding power for herself — that’s actually a reasonable villain motivation. Another point: Strange’s tactic against Dormammu — threatening a timeless creature by weaponizing time itself — was pretty brilliant. Don’t get me started on how Strange made his mystical time-rewinding gestures after he was flattened, flamed, or pincushioned, but the general conceit that time is a baffling burden for an immortal creature is just brilliant.

And as racially problematic and blatantly commercially driven as Tilda Swinton’s casting was, I loved her in that role. She exudes the right effortless, self-contained calm, and the right inhuman, unreachable arrogance, which mirrors Stephen Strange’s own attitude. Her farewell scene was managed so well, in terms of bringing across her remove from life, and her attachment to it. And it’s such a lovely little respite from the big cosmic battles of the rest of the film. For that matter, while Cumberbatch was saddled with some weak humor, I think he makes a terrific Doctor Strange, in terms of his patrician coldness, his superiority, and his sense of a naked, frightened humanity somewhere under it all. Did you guys end up with any straight-up fanboy happiness out of this film?

Kwame: In the promotional push ahead of the movie, Marvel did its best to acknowledge the more problematic aspects of the Doctor Strange mythos, while also acknowledging the problematic casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. In truth, the movie doesn’t do much to resolve those problems. While Kamar-Taj is presented as a diverse community of sorcerers, there’s no getting away from it feeling very much like the stereotypical martial-arts dojo we’ve seen in so many other stories over the years. Wong has been revised slightly, so he’s not just Doctor Strange’s loyal manservant, but he’s still something of the inscrutable Asian master we’ve seen in so many other stories.

All this said, I had trouble faulting the movie, since the performances were so good and so committed. Tilda Swinton is terrific, which pretty much goes without saying at this point. Benedict Wong is a welcome presence in just about anything he does. This certainly isn’t the last time we’ll be talking about diversity issues and old stereotypes, what with Iron Fist coming out in a few months. Marvel is trying, and it needs to try harder. But to my mind, it helps a little bit that the end product isn’t as egregious as it could have been.