You’ve felt it, I’ve felt it, we’ve all felt it:
With the constant slew of superhero blockbusters flooding cinema screens, it’s hard to keep this genre fresh. These films all share a remarkably similar structure, as well as common tropes like love interests, wise sages and all-powerful enemies. However, beyond the similarities within the genre itself, we now have the convention of cinematic universes. The pioneering Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has inspired a trend of shared universes including the lackluster DC Comics films, an attempted Monster Movie Universe, and now I hear they’re making a spinoff of The Big Lebowski centering on Jesus (the bowler, not the messianic figure).
So how can Marvel rise above the pop culture climate they’ve created? How can they introduce new characters and stories in their universe without getting stale?
They gotta get weird.
Doctor Strange is weird.
Based on a Marvel Comics run by the same name, Doctor Strange follows the journey of Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon who studies his way to become a powerful sorcerer. After suffering a nearly fatal car accident, Stephen suffers major nerve damage in his hands, rendering him unable to perform surgery ever again. When all hope seems lost, Stephen finds a man who miraculously recovered from paralysis and asks for his help. He sends Stephen to Kathmandu, Nepal where he meets the Ancient One, a powerful sorcerer whom Stephen begs to teach him and heal his hands.
The magic we see these sorcerers conjure is easily the best part of the film and a brilliant use of computer effects. There are a number of large action set-pieces and magic fights that are all brilliantly choreographed and artistically vivid. Like Inception on steroids, we witness a New York battle sequence in the “Mirror Dimension,” one of many dimensions explored in the film. Buildings fall in on one another. Gravity and matter warp in fractals. It’s a beautiful and infinitely complex M.C. Escher painting put to screen. Another scene consists of two characters fighting in the “Astral Plane” as their bodies lie comatose. They pass through walls and floors, shaking a lamp or two, as they fist fight in different planes of existence. Trippy visuals are abound and I implore you to see this movie in 3D like I did. A beginning scene where Stephen is shown the multiverse floored me with its 3D effects. I rarely ever recommend you pay the extra $4, but it is so worth it this time around. It’s this kind of creativity and effort that can pull Marvel out of this fatigue. Unique visuals and experimental ideas will enrapture audiences better than any standard superhero structure could.
But where Marvel champions in visuals and clever action, they fall flat once again in villainous conflict. As Stephen’s studies advance, he learns of the Ancient One’s student, Kaecillius, who turned to the “Dark Side” and is now awakening an ancient evil to gain immortality. We’ve seen this all before, and we have another bland villain in Kaecillius. Portrayed by Madds Mikkelsen, this character and actor are underwritten and underperformed. He’s a perfectly competent obstacle for our heroes and his motivation makes sense, but there’s no intrigue to it, no layers. It highlights another problem with the Marvel films. Each film is setting up for this massive Infinity War in 2018, so any villains that only last for a single film (spoiler alert, I guess) have no effort put towards them. There’s no question as to whether or not Stephen will save the day because there are no audience stakes in this villain.
As usual, the villains are disposable, but the heroes are incredibly charming and multilayered. For starters, Stephen Strange is an arrogant prick, straying from the normal hero archetype, but also differentiating himself from the likes of Tony Stark. He relies on his ego and his intellect most of all, which in the end is what holds him back in the mystic arts. They play up his inexperience well and how much magic begins to frustrate his scientific sensibilities. Themes of what we can and cannot control are introduced through Stephen’s characterization, and in the end, it’s suggested to us that there is great power in submission. That being said, I felt like he gets a few things way too quickly and the idea that he has some “natural talent” feels unearned and mostly a writing technique to keep this 2-hour character introduction moving.
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) received a great deal of flak when casting was announced as the original character was a male Tibetan monk. In an effort to emphasize the diversity within the sorcerer’s community however, the character was changed to an ancient female Celtic. An argument can be made for the Ancient One transcending gender and race, but that’s not an argument I’m qualified to discuss. What I can discuss though is how effectively this character is written. The Ancient One is powerful and complex. Even though she maintains a cool demeanor, she explains in the film, “We never defeat our demons. We simply learn to live above them.” This idea again brings up an important discussion about control, and it plays into her characterization excitingly in later scenes. Additionally, it informs the conflict with Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Mordo might be the best performance in the film, even above Strange. He’s an idealist, so when he must abandon his values later in the film, conflict boils deep within him. Arguments he has with Stephen about what their role in the world is are rife with passion and emotion from Chiwetel. He feels like a sincere, visceral character, and his philosophies conflict with Stephen intriguingly.
Finally, we have Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, one of Stephen’s former colleagues and lover. Christine is well-acted and well-written, and I felt she was integrated quite well into the plot considering she has no ability to warp time and space. She links Stephen to the real world and, in a way, is a mirror on which we can see Stephen change. The way he treats her in the beginning of the film shows us how awful and broken he is, but by the end the softness between them shows us how far he’s come. She never lets herself be taken advantage of and calls him out when he’s being awful. But she also recognizes his change at the end of the film, and we see the possibility of a rekindled romance in the future.
In the end, Doctor Strange is a welcome addition to Marvel’s lineup. It’s worth seeing for the visuals and leading performances alone. This film’s biggest weakness is that its plot and reason for existing feels like a means to an end. At its heart, it’s a calculated way to introduce the character of Doctor Strange for future films. That being said, it’s a very well-made introduction, and it allows for a creative and engaging experience this November.
Brendan Coyle is a junior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]