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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange

I had unreasonably high expectations for Doctor Strange, the latest entry from Marvel Studios; and I was disappointed.

Full disclosure: I’m one of those Silver Age Marvel Comics “bitter clingers.” I still have my comics from the 60s. I started reading (and collecting) Doctor Strange during its initial incarnation, when it was drawn by comics’ legend Steve Ditko. Aside from Jack Kirby’s copious contributions, Doctor Strange was my favorite superhero. When the merchandising began I managed to scrounge up $1.50 to buy one of the T-shirts.  Realize, in those days that was more than the cost of a month’s worth of Marvels! I remember agonizing over which one to choose. Guess which one I bought? Hint: it wasn’t drawn by Kirby.

Doctor Strange occupied a different domain of the Marvel universe. Not a different physical locale—he, like the rest, resided in New York City, in Greenwich Village no less. But his realm was not of the corporeal. Doctor Strange battled villains in other “dimensions”—with magic! As such, his story presented an opportunity for a departure in style from the typical mixture of action and humor we have come to expect from Marvel Studios and Disney.

As an eleven- and twelve-year-old I was drawn to Doctor Strange mainly by the wild and beautiful art of stylistic master Steve Ditko. Additionally, he had the most compelling origin story. In the world of superhero comics, a character’s origin story is singularly important. Strange’s was one of redemption. He was a brilliant surgeon with a God-complex. Smug, selfish, and avaricious, his life comes to a screeching halt in a car accident. The injuries to his hands are permanent and serve to prevent him from ever operating again. His pride is so great that he refuses to stay in medicine in a less distinguished capacity, such as teaching.

He sinks into despair and eventual poverty. In the origin story we find him, disheveled and unshaven, by the city docks. He overhears a conversation about an “Ancient One” who can perform miracles, somewhere in the mountains of Tibet.

Dr. Strange takes his ‘journey to the east’ and eventually finds the Ancient One. After some trials and tribulations, specifically caused by another pupil, Baron Mordo (a detail that has been changed in the movie), Strange decides to stay on at the Master’s feet and learn the “mystic arts.”  The origin story is an example of comic book storytelling at its best.

This transformation, after his tutelage from the Ancient One is complete, is profound and irrevocable. Strange is a completely changed man. One hundred eighty degree turnabout. There is no place for cockiness or wisecracking for the Master of the Mystic Arts. 

And this is where the film begins to go wrong.  In the first place, his advancement from awkward pupil blinded by western science’s objectivity to first-class mystic arts practitioner is simply not credible. More care should’ve been put into presenting what should have been a gradual mastery of the arts. Harry Potter’s was more believable.

Furthermore, the comic book Ancient One is an old bearded man, who is never seen moving (he levitates), and speaks sparingly. He is the classic iconic oriental wise man. As everyone is now aware, in bringing these half-century old comic book stories to life for the modern audience, Marvel will not allow any opportunity for an identity politics makeover go to waste.  By now, this is an old conflict that rages in comic book Facebook forums and the like, with the bitter clingers like me on one side and the hip, socially conscious SJW types on the other, arguing in favor of a female Thor or an African-American Human Torch or Heimdall. But here, with Doctor Strange, the politically correct gamesmanship has clearly jumped the shark. The casting of Tilda Swindon in the role of the Ancient One is an unforgivable error. But even if we ignore it and accept a female Ancient One, her character is mishandled. In the comics the Ancient One is a complete enigma. In the movie, she is far too human; we know too much of the inner woman. She talks too much.

The origin story of Doctor Strange is a story of transformation. That transformation must be complete, and it must be awesome. When it happens, the entire mood of the movie should shift. Both sound and picture palettes should reflect a new, serious, brooding Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts.

It doesn’t. Unfortunately, our good doctor retains his penchant for snappy comebacks and humor. Yep, it's Tony Stark all over again. And this is the main problem for me with the movie: the writing. After his traumatic experience and having 'made his decision for Christ,' I want a serious Doctor Strange, Not another Tony Stark. Not Chris Pratt's Star Lord.

When he's reunited with his love interest at a moment of crisis, he should be greeted with astonishment, awe, and respect at the new Dr. Stephen Strange. Not an opportunity for comic relief.

Doctor Strange also suffers from stylistic incoherence. Sure, there's plenty of wow factor with the cityscape fractalizing FX, but after awhile. . . A movie like this should have an overarching visual and aural theme. But Doctor Strange is a hodgepodge of sights and sounds, with no unifying sense of style.

Marvel had the opportunity to spin their movies into a different dimension (pun intended) with Doctor Strange. Instead, they chose to stick to the same old formula that has worked for them with the Avengers and Iron Man franchises, etc. Too bad. Playing it safe. No artistic vision. As an English football pundit famously said recently about the underachieving national team: “Where’s the ambition?”

Couldn’t it have been at least as serious as a Harry Potter movie?

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--Mark Charalambous