Marvel has served up pretty consistently good superhero movies in the last bunch of years (we don’t talk about Iron Man 3) and in fact has even delivered a few pleasant surprises (Antman, for example). Dr. Strange is an absolutely solid entry in the Marvel universe: it’s fast-paced, funny, visually cool, and the acting and directing are everything they ought to be.
I will take this moment to grumble once and only once that both Stephen Strange and The Ancient One should not have been played by white British people. When the casting choices were first announced way back when, a bit of grousing ensued among fans of the comics, and charges of whitewashing followed. They’re not really wrong. The Ancient One was an old Asian man, not a shaven-headed white woman. This issue has been discussed in greater depth by smarter people than myself, and some will point out that The Ancient One’s representation in the comics was drenched in problematic “magical Asian” stereotypes and that there’s a case for changing it up a bit. Nevertheless, I’m not sure the best solution was to have a white lady teaching a white guy the secrets of ancient Asian magic/science. Particularly since the movie in general did really seem to be working pretty hard to avoid the fetishizing of Asian culture.
Stephen Strange himself has been redrawn many times over the years, but his most recent incarnations are drawn to look like someone who would be more accurately embodied by, for example, Antonio Banderas, rather than someone as lily-white as Benedict Cumberbatch. His ethnicity is, at best, ambiguous. And in a film universe in which literally every picture so far has been headlined by a white dude, the decision not to cast an actor of color is a missed opportunity. The Cumberbacklash (sorry) was sort of inevitable.
But taken at its own worth, Tilda Swinton’s otherworldly androgyny kind of works, and I cannot deny that Bennigan Cabbagepatch rocks that red cape (which should have been its own character in the credits). And their performances are, as usual, of the quality you’d expect from these reliably fine actors.
Marvel likes to flirt with grownup themes in its films. Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? How much government control is too much? How should a society bend to accommodate those who are different from the norm? The grownup theme in Dr. Strange is a question of whether the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Stephen Strange is, in a few important ways, a hero in the mold of Tony Stark. He starts off the movie as a gifted neurosurgeon with an outsized ego and a propensity for throwing his money around. He’s a smartypants with a magnificently appointed NYC penthouse, an exotic sports car, and collection of expensive watches that are housed in automated spinning watch winders (the ultimate accessory for the discerning watch connoisseur who doesn’t want to deal with winding his watches). He picks and chooses what patients he wants to take based on how much potential personal glory is involved and whether or not they will adversely affect his perfect surgery record. Rachel McAdams plays his ex-girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer, a skilled surgeon in her own right. She still seems to respect and care for him but doesn’t seem to much miss catering to his ego. She gives the proceedings the humanity and decency that is, initially at least, missing from our leading man.
Like Tony Stark, a personal tragedy begins his journey toward becoming a hero. In Strange’s case, a terrible accident in the aforementioned exotic sports car leaves him with irreparable nerve damage in his hands. He exhausts his contacts in the medical community seeking someone to perform the increasingly experimental and risky treatments he wants to undertake to return his hands to their former glory. He’s abusive to Christine, who’s tried to be supportive to him, the the point that he drives her away. He basically acts exactly the way you’d expect a person who is both incredibly entitled and deeply insecure to act when something tragic happens to him. After a series of events that I won’t spoil, he runs off to seek healing in a monastery in Katmandu, where he’s often too smart for his own good and frequently gets his ass handed to him, astrally speaking, by Tilda Swinton.
The spinning watch winders, as it turns out, aren’t just to show what a rich jerk he is; they’re there to establish the theme of time; the urgency of time passing and the chances of his recovery waning. And more to the point, the ways that Stephen Strange eventually learns to play around with time, conquer it, and weaponize it as he grows into his powers during his studies under Tilda Swinton’s complicated, mildly creepy Ancient One.
Without spoiling the entire plot, I’ll say that, being a Tony Stark type of hero, he’s essentially good, but flawed and a bit gray around the edges, and so are some of the other important characters, which is nice. At the end of the day, superhero movies that don’t spend at least a little bit of time focused on the characters’ humanity are going to be boring, because it doesn’t matter how cool a fight scene is if you’re not invested in the people fighting. If they’re not giving you at least a little character development, you don’t really care if they take apart several city blocks and bust them into four dimensions like an Escher drawing. (“Dr. Strange” does both, by the way.)
The similarities between him and Tony Stark end, however, at the point at which we have to examine the role that their egos play in their heroics. While Tony’s ego is essentially the fuel for his heroics in both literal and metaphorical ways, Strange is told by the Ancient One that his ego is getting in his way, that it will keep him from reaching the level of skills that the Ancient One demonstrates in their first encounter, in which she literally punches his soul out of his body because he’s rather too sassy with her. His redemption arc involves his struggle to move past his own ego.
We come to understand that there’s an urgency (there’s that theme of time, again) to him reaching his potential because of an imminent danger; she recognizes in him a willingness to embrace the imperfect, to bend the rules for the greater good, and not allow moral purity to come between him and saving the world from the various interdimensional threats that menace it. This theme of not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good is explored in various ways throughout this movie; Tilda’s stalwart right hand man, Mordo (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a moral purist, unwilling to accept solutions that demand compromising the rules, even when faced with the literal end of the world.
The combat sequences are some of the coolest I’ve seen in recent memory. The movie opens with a fight scene on a London street … well, more accurately, on the side of a London building. Conceptually, it lifts a lot from “Inception”, as the combatants are twisting the environment around them and constantly struggling with shifting gravity and rather fluid notions of what constitutes up and down. They open portals to locations on the other side of the world. The surfaces of buildings, floors, ceilings, and sidewalks expand and bubble and ripple as if made of liquid, in a way I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen before. The Ancient One executes a magical attack, and the mosaic tile she and her foes are standing on blooms outward like a flower in a sped-up time-lapse video. Elements of other combat scenes bear visual references to the artful exaggeration of Hong Kong kung fu films. There’s a fight scene that runs backwards, the combatants suddenly finding themselves trapped inside of walls and under rubble as the destruction that they wrought reverses itself. And, for once, a movie lives up to its ad campaign hype: if you’re going to bother seeing anything in 3D, this movie is the one. The spatial trickery really makes it worthwhile.
Is a moral compromise worth it, if it’s for the right reasons? The movie leaves that up to the viewer to decide. But it’s certainly worth your entertainment dollar to look at all the delightful movie magic while you ponder that question. The movie is fun and tightly-paced, seems relatively free of any really glaring plot holes (it’s a day later and I haven’t had any damning moments of fridge logic), and most importantly in a comic book movie, it’s indisputably cool. And while it has a few flaws (like the whitewashing issue and the fact that I could really have used a bit more of Rachel McAdams), I, like Stephen Strange, am not about to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.