The real magic is in the places you’re not looking
by Thom Yee
Magic is one of those things in life that’s hard to define in concrete terms. That’s kind of what makes it magic actually, that it can do almost anything in a way that surprises and delights. Who knows if magic is a part of real life (or what “real life” even means sometimes), but we feel like it is, and maybe that’s enough to make it real. It’s only when you start to pin it down, when you conjure it with words and spells and gestures and avatars, when you start to give it real weight and meaning, develop it into a system, designate its boundaries, and accept it as simply part of everything else going on that it becomes a bit more of a science, something cold and clinical to be broken down and parsed. That’s when it starts to lose whatever it is that made it special and it can almost become laborious.
Now just replace the word ‘magic’ with ‘Marvel’ (as in Marvel Studios). Doctor Strange is coming out at a bit of an odd time for superhero movies, a time when much of the awe and delight of the genre has passed, replaced instead with boredom, indifference, and, in many cases, even mild annoyance. With the kind of sustained, concentrated dose of superhero movies that we’ve gotten since Marvel first kicked off its ongoing cinematic universe with Iron Man in 2008, it’s only natural that Doctor Strange, the latest Marvel movie, would be met with at least a little bit of skepticism. There is, however, something a little bit different about this one.
Debuting in the 1960s as part of the explosion of Marvel creative content that brought us Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, among others, Doctor Strange was first introduced to us as the master of black magic, his stories of a more darkly supernatural bent than his superheroic brethren. It wasn’t until later that he would adopt some of the more typical characteristics of a Marvel hero, including changing his look towards bolder, brighter colours, forming his own team of superheroes, and taking on the mantle of the Sorcerer Supreme, a far rosier title than what might comes to mind with the thought of black magic. These changes might have made him more easy to digest for the typical comicbook reader, but they left behind some of the more far out elements of the character, and it wasn’t until relatively recently that writers like Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Waid, and Jason Aaron successfully returned to the more spiritual and even more horrific roots of the character, and for their part, Marvel Studios made the canny decision of hiring Scott Derrickson, more commonly associated with horror movies, to direct Doctor Strange.
What’s It About?
After losing the use of his hands following a horrific car accident, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant neurosurgeon, exhausts nearly all of his once considerable fortune to heal himself but finds no help or hope for his condition from Western medicine. Learning of a group of healers in a place called “Kamar-taj”, Strange uses the last of his resources to travel to this mysterious land and is taken in by the group and their leader, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), from whom he learns that there’s much more to the universe than he’d ever imagined. Also magic. He learns magic.
The character of Doctor Strange is one of the odder choices for a big-time Marvel movie, not just because of his mystical background, but because, unlike a lot of Marvel’s biggest heroes, he doesn’t exactly have the deepest back catalogue of comicbook stories. Honestly, just about everything I’ve read of the character has been pretty terrible, and all of the recent collections of his past adventures recently reprinted to capitalize on the movie’s release have only driven that point even further home. In fact, with the exception of some of the original Doctor Strange stories and the current Doctor Strange run by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo, this is one of the few times I would actually discourage you from reading the comicbooks. Which most of you never do anyways.
On the other hand, after eight years, 13 movies, and three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there aren’t actually that many characters left who bring something fundamentally different to the table. Though we can quibble over the quality of the individual Marvel movies — and I will always maintain that, given how many of them there are and how quickly they’ve come out, Marvel Studios has done a remarkably good job so far — the one negative criticism against them that I will openly accept is that they’re all kind of the same movie. Doctor Strange might not be the first hero who comes to mind when you think of superheroes, he may not even be the 10th or 20th. You may never have even heard of him. And that was probably the point.
Is It Any Good?
I wrote once about Thor: The Dark World that what had me most excited about the movie was that, in order for Thor to face a credible threat, the villain would have to be greater than any we’d seen before. Sure, The Avengers may have had Loki and his alien Chitauri army to contend with, but we had already met Loki by then and very little about him, his army, or that movie felt even remotely dangerous. Thor: The Dark World had to be different though, its story would have to threaten the entire realm of Asgard, and for that to happen, its villain would have to be resourceful, powerful, and even otherworldly. Then the movie came out and we met its villain, the Dark Elf Lord Malekith, and you’d be forgiven if you don’t recall that name or even remember most of what happened in that movie, because it’s with Thor: The Dark World that we could finally confirm what we had suspected for a while: Marvel Studios doesn’t know how to write good villains. In a lot of ways I had the same expectations of Doctor Strange, though greatly tempered by time’s passage and Marvel’s continued inability to create good movie villains, and I can say that, thankfully, it does a lot better. Well, maybe just a little better, but I liked it a lot better anyways.
To start with, most of the things you’ve probably heard from critics and imagined to yourself about Doctor Strange as the latest Marvel movie are true. It’s visually stunning and unique, relatively funny, and action-packed like most Marvel movies, but, also like most Marvel movies, it’s fairly predictable, quite silly, and lacks hard consequences. If you’re looking for a superhero movie to finally break the mould, do something different, and prove everyone wrong about their preconceived notions, if those are the things you’re desperately hoping for and you think that Doctor Strange looks just weird enough or different enough to get you there, then you’re going to be disappointed. Doctor Strange is definitely a Marvel movie in tone and style, but what sets Doctor Strange apart, even if only mildly, are two things: Its actors and the movie’s focus on spirituality. Believe it or not, you need to be able to recognize the subtleties of the movie to get the most out of it.
It would be a lie to claim that the Marvel movies have suffered from poor casting, especially with their leads, who’ve almost all knocked it out of the park, but Doctor Strange is easily the most stacked of all of them in terms of sheer acting talent. Chiwetel Ejiofor (whose name I can spell without even looking it up) puts in strong work as Mordo, a fellow mystic student and friend of Doctor Strange, and is even convincing enough to sell one of the movie’s key twists, Mads Mikkelsen is great as the villain Kaecilius and has enough stage presence to make you overlook that he’s largely yet another underwritten Marvel villain, and Benedict Cumberbatch has enough charisma to make you like Doctor Strange even though he’s really unlikable a lot of the time. There are some very obvious parallels between Doctor Strange, successful man whose unique skills have earned him untold riches, and Tony Stark, but unlike Robert Downey, Jr.’s Stark, who’s charming and fun in addition to self-centred, Cumberbatch’s Strange is truly horrible sometimes, enough even to make you flinch in at least one scene.
And then there’s Tilda Swinton, an actress who instantly elevates any movie she’s in with grace, dignity, and just a whole lot of weirdness, and she’s pretty much perfect as the Ancient One even though her casting proved to be highly controversial. For those of you who don’t know, the Ancient One has traditionally been portrayed as a wizened, old Chinese man, and a lot of people took offense to the role going to a white woman. As a Chinaman, I have two thoughts on the subject. One, I feel that casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One wasn’t choosing a white woman over a Chinese man so much as choosing a weirdly alien being for the role. When I see Tilda Swinton, I don’t see a white woman so much as an abstract idea of what humans could be if they followed a different, more mystical path, and that’s perfect for the Ancient One. Second, the funny thing about the Asian communities I’ve spent the most time in is that there’s a real lack of feeling towards the topic of Asian representation in popular media, and that’s probably because most Asian parents I know will do everything in their power to discourage their children from pursuing a career in something like acting. For me and the Asians I know, when we don’t see Asians in film or television, it kind of feels right because that means “mission accomplished” the kids went into medicine or law or engineering instead of something artistic. That might not be right, and it’s especially unfair to Asians trying to break into acting (the poor fools!), but I think that’s the most honest reflection of what most Asians are usually thinking about the subject.
What really sold me on Doctor Strange as a whole, though, was one scene in particular between Strange and the Ancient One on the astral plane as the two contemplate their place in the universe after a particularly climactic battle. Thinking back on it, had that scene been absent, I might not have even have liked the movie all that much, and not because it was a particularly well-done scene so much as it’s a nuanced discussion of existence and humanity brought to us by exceptional actors, and what it ends up being is the moment of revelation that the entire movie had been building to. It doesn’t hit you over the head, Doctor Strange isn’t really even a theme-heavy movie, but if you’re looking for a little bit of deeper meaning to what’s going on, it’s there, and if you’re only there to watch people with exotic abilities hitting each other, it’s done in a way that wont distract from the action, and it takes real craft to strike that balance.
So Should I See It?
I liked Doctor Strange a lot, but you might not. I loved the way it looked, I loved that it has the capacity to make you think, and I loved that, unlike in any other hero story I’m familiar with, Doctor Strange basically defeats the bad guys by being really annoying. You would have to see it, though, to understand what I mean by that, and I’m not going to try and conjure some cheap tricks just to make you go and see it. Doctor Strange isn’t fundamentally different from any of Marvel’s previous movies, it doesn’t change the formula or show us much that we didn’t already know, it merely seeks to remind us of our place in the universe while also earning hundreds of millions of dollars for its parent company.
To those of you who have found yourself falling much more on the negative side of the superhero movie argument, I understand, I’m, as a lifelong comicbook nerd, even with you to some extent, but I would implore you to think about it this way: At their core and maybe more than any other genre (except maybe war movies), superhero stories are about doing what you can to help people who need it and the pull and the cost of that responsibility, and, as a concept, I find that endlessly fascinating and endlessly hopeful, particularly with what’s happened recently in (to?) the world. It might seem sometimes that we’re nothing more than tiny, insignificant specks in a cruel and uncaring universe, but superheroes exist explicitly to tell us otherwise, to be optimistic and to be utterly fearless in the dark. Those aren’t easy things to be, but if you’re interpreting them correctly, the better superhero movies can make it a little bit easier to at least try, and Doctor Strange continues that tradition. While earning hundreds of millions of dollars for its parent company.
Thom’s Doctor Strange final score
On the Edge
- Love that new Marvel Studios opening.
- I see Stephen Strange and Tony Stark share the same taste in watches (Jaeger-LeCoultre).
- Master of mystic arts or not, nothing explains that haircut, Kaecilius.