“Open your mind. Change your reality” or “Question reality. Change your destiny” or “The impossibilities are endless.”
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelson
Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, but arrogant, neurosurgeon, pioneering new techniques while telling War Machine (or… wait? Was he actually talking about Diamondback from Luke Cage?) to take his entirely pedestrian spino-cranial injuries elsewhere. Then he gets into a car crash because he’s using his phone while driving at high speed in the rain – we get it already, he’s reckless – and loses most of the use of his hands.
His search for a means to repair his nerve damage leads him to Kamar-Taj, a religious retreat in Kathmandu where the Ancient One (Swinton) and her former student Mordo (Ejiofor) take him in and teach him the arts of magic, which involve tapping into other dimensions, some of which are bad because reasons okay. Another former student, Kaecilius (Mikkelson), has stolen a ritual to tap into the Dark Dimension and seeks to surrender the world to an entity called Dormammu, from whom the other sorcerers of the world protect the Earth.
As Strange begins to accept the reality of magic while balking from the task of becoming a mystical warrior, Kaecilius begins destroying the sanctums which power Earth’s mystic toupee. The Ancient One is killed and her cause called into question, but it is up to Strange, Mordo and Kamar-Taj librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) to defend the world from Kaecilius and Dormammu.
What’s wrong with it?
The Ancient One. So, I completely accept the argument that including the Ancient One straight out of the comics would have been a mistake and a perpetuation of one of Marvels’ more egregious bits of cultural appropriation (and extra problematic as the nature of the role as written would have dropped an Asian version right into the sinister and inscrutable pocket.) On the other hand, casting a white woman in the role traditionally filled by a Tibetan man was… never going to go over well. Honestly, I suspect that they would have been better writing out the Ancient One altogether or leaving the character as a mysterious predecessor never seen on screen. It’s implied that this Ancient One is a successor to the mantle, but… Yeah, it was a no-win situation and they lost.
So, did you notice how I didn’t reference Rachel McAdams in the plot summary? She plays Dr Christine Palmer, a fellow surgeon and former lover whom Strange blows up at during his post-injury pity party, but later stumbles back to when he’s been stabbed with bad magic. She’s supposed to be his grounding in the normal world, but feels more like a tacked on love interest, especially in a film that lacks strong female spellcasters (the Ancient One is powerful, but fatally flawed as well as bearing the doom of the mentor; all other female sorcerers are goons on one side or the other, with no real lines to speak.)
Overall, I’d like to think that they didn’t cast Swinton because a Tibetan character wouldn’t sell in China, nor McAdams because they didn’t want shippers to focus on the Strange/Mordo bromance, but I’m cynical and suspicious.
Although the film does a decent job of presenting a valid philosophical basis for Kaecilius’ rebellion, the nature and appearance of Dormammu and the Dark Dimension do not really maintain the promise of glorious life everlasting.
It’s never really explained why some magic is natural and other magic is bad. I’m not against the whole light side/dark side thing, but the Ancient One draws power from the Dark Dimension without the physical and psychological side effects observed in Kaecilius, so why is it necessarily bad? What was the Ancient One’s ‘cost’ besides a stabbing, which it is proven could happen to anyone?
What’s right with it?
The Cloak of Levitation that adopts Strange about halfway through the movie is clearly woven from a blend of awesome and win. Cloaky is definitely my new favourite MCU character.
Cumberbatch’s accent is much less distracting than in the trailers.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is always value for money.
The effects are incredible, with the big mirror-world battle centrepiece especially impressive, with the world folding over and over itself like Inception on LSD.
The blending of ancient and modern in Kamar-Taj – the wifi password, Wong’s iPod – made it more interesting than if they denounced the evils of technology or something.
I really like the denouement. It’s good to see something other than just Strange calling on a bigger special effect than his enemies.
How bad is it really?
It’s really rather good, although I can’t help feeling that it has a staggering level of similarity to Iron Man. Arrogant genius grows a scruffy beard and learns to be a better man while playing with holograms and learning to fly. Regardless of that, and the fact that the human characters are all outshone by Cloaky, it’s really rather good. It’s a shame that that whitewashing thing is going to stay with them.
Best bit (if such there is)?
There are lots of excellent action scenes, of which my favourite is probably Cloaky going to town on one of the zealots, but if I had to pick a single stand out it would have to be the early interactions between Strange and Wong.
“You know, people used to think I was funny.”
“Did they work for you?”
Also, Thor’s face as his tankard refills itself in the mid-credits scene. Just darling.
What’s up with…?
- If he’s a surgeon, shouldn’t he be ‘mister’? I don’t know if they roll so in the states.
- Kaecilius? I couldn’t help feeling that the name should have two hard Cs instead of a K and a soft C.
Production values – As always, top notch. 1
Dialogue and performances – For a film that is about 60% complete bullshit pseudomystical arcanobabble, Doctor Strange does well at just keeping a straight face throughout. Huge props for no-one winking at the camera ever. On the downside, the script is about 60% bullshit pseudomystical arcanobabble. 7
Plot and execution – Strange’s meteoric increase in power is not well-explained, and that weakens the mid-section of the film. Otherwise the basic plot is sound and followed consistently. 7
Randomness – Why is some magic bad? I mean, I get that Dormammu is bad; he basically eats planets, and I’m against that, but why is his entire universe so inimical? I also get why time magic is dangerous, but not why it is bad. 6
Waste of potential – It’s a superhero movie with wizards. And kung fu. Part of me feels that it’s let the side down by not being purely and unarguably the most awesome thing ever, because it’s a superhero movie with wizards and kung fu, but I can also see lots of ways it could have been much worse. Points off, however, for whitewashing, albeit with the best of intentions.9