There is so much to discuss with regards to Doctor Strange. The latest offering in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been ripe for controversy and inherently risky. Although this is not the first film from the studio that has had such concerns leveled. Like its predecessors is succeeds on so many levels to become an entertaining film and continue the expansion of the mythology.
In many ways Doctor Strange is very much in line with traditional superhero fare. We have the origin story wherein Stephen Strange, brilliant surgeon, loses the use of his hands. The story serves to bring down the arrogant ego maniac to a point of desperation. Strange exhausts all of his fortune to find a way to bring back his talent.
In many ways it is not unlike Tony Stark’s initial journey. Both Strange and Stark are at the top of their games celebrating fame, fortune, and respect. What sets Strange apart is that he is more selfish, whereas Stark was reckless. Strange actively seeks out the money and prestige for his position, unwilling to help what he deems hopeless cases.
The origin story is not the entirety of the film, but does serve to give us an introduction as we follow Strange to a very different world from the one he starts in. The visuals, as Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One introduces our lead to the multiverse, are difficult to describe. They are beautiful and terrifying. Unnerving and oddly comforting. With each passing realm, just as you feel you have seen the whole picture, you notice additional details that take you deeper into the rabbit hole.
Once we get to the magic and the practice, the story plays out differently than what would be expected. One bit of controversy was the fear of what is commonly called “Mighty Whitey” trope. This trope typically plays out with a white man being taken in by another culture, then surpassing them in their traditions. The concern was that Strange would show up in Kamar-Taj located in Katmahnduh and naturally be better at the mystic arts then those who have been studying for years. Instead Stephen, for lack of a better word, sucks at magic. He is able to read and retain the training better than many due to a photographic memory. However, even basic spells, it seems, are extremely difficult and Strange can barely muster sparks, let alone full on magic. Even as he does begin to become proficient, he is regularly outshone by the other spell casters with more experience. It is enjoyable to watch that Strange’s survival is more akin to luck, creativity and unpredictability then it is to suddenly using spells that are beyond his level.
Strange’s inexperience really gives the opportunity for cast mates such as Chiewetel Elfajor (Karl Mordo) and The Ancient One to become fleshed out. The opening scene is a firm showing that the Ancient One is every bit as powerful and dangerous as one would expect. Mordo comes across clearly as the strongest warrior amongst Kamar-Taj. Both characters are given some development as The Ancient One serves to be a vicious taskmaster. She is perfectly willing to put her students in life threatening situations to ensure they are capable. It is also clear she will have no remorse for those that cannot cut it.
Karl Mordo, on the other hand, is more patient and forgiving. While he is firm in his black and white worldview, Mordo is a focused soldier. You could easily see him as the hero of another story and the character is not just another brutal drill sergeant mentor, but one who works to bring out the best in his pupils.
The other characters in the film are underdeveloped. Largely, this is a consequence of having to introduce so much of a whole new world in the film, and much of the run time being dedicated to teaching us about magic. This, unfortunately, results in people like Wong (Benedict Wong) and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) being given little to do aside from playing living props, unfortunately. They do give some of the funnier scenes in the film, but offer little towards the plot.
Unfortunately, as with many Marvel villains, Kaecilous (Mads Mikkelsen) also fails victim to underdevelopment. Kaecilous does get some characterization beyond bad guy. The character even brings about a tearjerker of a scene as a man broken and betrayed. While not as bland as some villains, he is definitely not Loki or Zemo level intriguing. We do get a visually impressive surprise with the villain, complete with a genuinely clever and original confrontation. The movie also sets up a future villain in a former ally with the second stinger. Without spoiling too much this enemy may prove to break the trend, if initial introductions are anything to go by.
The final point of analysis necessary in a discussion about Doctor Strange is the Ancient One. The casting of Tilda Swinton in a role that features an Asian man in the comics resulted in many cries of whitewashing. I have always been firmly of the belief that changing a character’s race is inconsequential if their ethnic background is not a crucial part of them. At the same time, I understand the concern regarding a lack of Asian character’s in film. I also recognize that Asian culture is a common victim of whitewashing.
I will say that, in the context of the film, the Ancient One’s race is inconsequential. The sorcerers are an extremely diverse group from around the world. A careful viewer can spot traces of many kinds of magical mythology scattered through the visuals and practices. I found the fact that the story chooses to pull from a variety of spiritual practices to be refreshing. Many cultures have some form of mystical practice and tying them together here for a multicultural style is wonderful to see.
Doctor Strange takes some risks. The visuals are breathtaking and best experienced through 3D (not something I advise often). Many characters are well developed and could easily be seen as stars of other stories. The ones lacking in development still make you like them and wonder about them. The risks with regards to changes to traditional superhero progression and breaking of culturally offensive tropes are a welcome treat. While I won’t say the film is the best Marvel movie yet, I will say it is another solid production from the studio based on the House of Ideas.
+Creative blending of cultures
+Breaks from traditional storytelling and superhero fare
-The villain problem
-Underdeveloped supporting cast
Nick is the resident expert on Marvel for the Geekiverse and is now waiting for Brother Voodoo to get an introduction in future Doctor Strange film. You can find him on twitter @dare_to_geek.
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