First thing’s first. Marvel: your new logo sucks and nobody likes it. I know, it’s the tenth anniversary of Iron Man and you wanted to do something special…but did you have to do it with an eye-sore? It looks like a trailer for the thirteen other movies you’ve made since, coming across as both desperate and grasping. Which is odd from the biggest going concern in one of the biggest movie studios on the planet. But I guess there must always be balance. DC just got itself a logo that didn’t suck, so someone had to fill in the gap, somehow.
Well, we certainly have come along way since the last Dr. Strange movie, haven’t we? Hell, most of you probably didn’t even know about the straight-to-DVD animated movie Marvel Studios made with LionsGate back in 2007. My review of it got Worldwide Blocked as soon as I put it up on YouTube, but who cares? We’ve got a new Doctor Strange movie for everyone to forget about now.
Directed by Scott Derrickson, whom most of my colleagues know as the director of Sinister. But I’ll forever know him as the director of Hellraiser: Inferno, first of the direct-to-video Hellraiser sequels. A bad cross between Bad Lieutenant (no, not that one, the original one) and Jacob’s Ladder, with a coat of Pinhead slapped onto it at the last minute. Had some decently directed bits, though. I remember thinking, “This Derrickson kid has some chops.” Thanks to the $5 shelf at the 7/11 near where I used to live, I even own his Day the Earth Stood Still remake…but every time I think about watching it, dishes that need doing, or a floor that needs sweeping, or a toilet that needs cleaning appear before my eyes. Like magic.
The script for this Doctor Strange began under the two guys who wrote the Conan remake, so I’m glad Derrickson brought his own writer-friend in punch it up. And goddamn if C. Robert Cargill isn’t an internet film writer made good. From the bowls of Guerrilla Films, to the heights of the Marvel/Disney Empire, via his own highly-praised indy horror movie that I’m going to track down now. It’s a career path made in an old-school Evil Dead fan’s Heaven – another sign that dreams actually can come true and good things actually do happen….at least to some people. We’ll see about the rest of us. I suppose I should be happy Dr. Strange got his own origin story in the first place, rather than have it sandwiched into the middle of someone else’s movie. That’s apparently the game we’re all playing now, gods help us.
I know why it took ’em three writers, though. Dr. Strange’s origin story is a tougher nut to crack than some. In its original form, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, it was only eight pages long – a back-up story that ran months after Strange’s actual debut and is by far the least interesting thing about him. I’m don’t know if it was a complete afterthought, but I see a whole hell of a lot of signs there pointing straight to Afterthought Land. It’s astonishingly similar to the origin story of Tony Stark: a brilliant but narcissistic technical prodigy learns how to give a shit about something other than himself after a traumatic, debilitating event alters the course of his life. No surprise, since these two are almost twin brothers, with only a four-month gap between their debuts. What’s surprising is, no one’s really figured out how to deal with the fact you can barely see daylight between them until they get their powers.
Hollywood figured they’d let the casting department handle that, and so they hired TV’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch. His American accent distracted at first, but I got used to hearing “Broadcast School” Dialect come out of his mouth by the end of Act One. Good thing I stopped watching Sherlock two years before everyone else realized how bad it really was, or this issue might’ve persisted.
New Smaug, then, is Dr. Stephen Strange, MD, Phd – a brilliant neurosurgeon who’s obviously an arrogant dick, since he’s always so right about everything all the time. Like every other Doctor Protagonist on TV. It’s plain to me everyone at Marvel Studios thought ol’ Sherley could carry this movie all by himself because Strange has only two real Moments in his Origin: one when he gets into the car accident that crushes his hands (don’t drive distracted, kids!), and the other when the Ancient One of Kamar-Taj lets him in on the worst kept secret in this or any comic book universe – that magic is real and all the arrogant, positivist dicks out there are full of shit. Hey, just like in real life!
For some reason (probably having to do with Iron Fist and his astonishingly similar – if slightly more Batman-inflected – origin story) the Gods of Marvel didn’t want to make Kamar-Taj a hidden city somewhere up in the Himalayas. Instead, here it’s an unassuming door down a random alley in Kathmandu, and I think I like that more. The great things about magic is, the laws of space and time are more like lose guidelines. This is something the Thor movies never understood, with their foolish insistence on going,
Evil Me: Don’t worry – they’re just aliens. Long-lived, technologically advanced aliens from another dimension. It’s fine. They aren’t *really* the gods of an ancient pagan pantheon come to life, they’re just aliens that inspired them, like you hear about on the (*snicker*) History Channel.
Instead of all that runaround, here, the Ancient One forcibly blasts our protagonist through the various levels of Existence, and reveals that his paltry little universe (officially labeled Earth-199,999, which is annoying, because if it were one Earth over, I could easily call it Earth 2 x 10^5) in but one stream of a vast multiverse. And so life imitates art.
I like how the infinite vastness of the multiverse looks like a bunch of nerve endings, or synapses – especially the Dark Dimensions, ruled over by the eternal universe-eating entity Dormamuu. I like to pretend it looks this way because our protagonist has, conceivably, stared at nerve endings and synapses every day of his life since before he got into college at whatever absurdly young age. And it’s the best image his brain can come up with in the face of the Infinite. I can’t think of much better. A giant spider-web, maybe. Or a giant tree. But that’s the other two guys, & we just got Spidey into this fold. The civies aren’t ready for him to go cosmic yet. Sorry, Madam Web. Keep watching.
Thus begins Strange’s training montage – the Karate Kid part of our adventure, I called it, before Mr. Miagi became a Celtic woman. I like Tilda, especially in this roll. She’s confident and patient with her newest recruit, and ever so slightly more humble than most of the Ancient Ones I’ve met. She visibly displays concern that her methods might be wrong, even after all the time she’s presumably been at this. Her superficial resemblance to Avatar Ang, from the Good Avatar franchise, is the only thing even close to a problem I have with her. In fact, paint an arrow on her head and she’d be Avatar Yangchen. Especially since golden fans appear to be her weapons of choice. Our Villain and his followers also have an air-bender theme going – they make all their swords out of air, much like they did in Strange ’07, so good on them for using a renewable resource.
Speaking of which, hey, Le Chefe! How’s it hanging, buddy? What the fuck is up with Mads playing characters that have something fucked up about their eyes? Points for not being Yet Another Evil Tony Stark, but on the whole, Karcilious is flatter than Judge Doom after he gets hit by that steamroller. He does gets to set the tone (and announce the theme) with his first word to the Ancient One, “Hypocrite,” and he gets one good speech about how linear time is the true enemy of all life…but that’s pretty much all he’s got going for him. For the longest time, even his Villain Monologue bugged me, and I finally figured out why: it’s eerily similar to Malcolm McDowell’s “time is a predator” Villain Monologue from Stark Trek: Generations. No movie should remind anyone of an odd-numbered Star Trek movie if it can at all help it.
Also, who the hell greenlit a film where the villain had “silly” right there in his name? Dr. Strange has battled deities from every pantheon on Earth, from Set to Satan to Death Herself. Along with many a creature that can only be described as Lovecraftian. Why in the name of all those gods would you stick him with a second-tier, C-list antagonist in his first outing? At least Iron Man made their version of that into an evil surrogate father figure.
Evil Me: Don’t play dumb. You know the answer.
Yeah, alright. It’s because they didn’t want to use Mordo right away, the way they did in the 2007 film. Better (it seems they thought) to save Mordo for the already-greenlit sequel. Maybe he can bring in Nightmare. Our Director’s gone on record saying he wants to do Nightmare, and I don’t blame him. I, too, would like to see Nightmare try and take over the whole of Fiction in live action, because that would awesome. I can see the heads of all my colleagues who like to throw the term “meta” around exploding in unison right now, like a memory of the future.
Whether that happens or not, I like the Mordo we get here better than any of his previous incarnations. And not just because he’s Solomon Northrup. It’s also because he was the bad guy in Serenity. And also because his motivations here are the same as Karcilious’. Previous Mordos have almost always been upper-class, patrician bastards – Transylvanian royalty, out for power, but too chickenshit to be a vampire. Here, though, he’s not driven by jealousy over some half-trained amateur usurping his place in the line of succession. Instead, he’s driven by disillusionment over the hypocrisy of his master. The same thing that makes Karcilious sell Earth out to Dormammu. Mordo just takes it to a different place – as does Strange.
Turns out The Ancient One stole power from the Dark Dimension to unnaturally extend her own life, having looked into the future and realized that (as another, more freelance champion of reality once said) “There’s always another apocalypse.” She clung to power from Dormammu in order to stave those apocalypses off, always knowing that it would never be enough, and forcing her disciples must grapple with the fact that there are worse crimes than hypocrisy. Karcilious couldn’t handle that, and Mordo can barely keep it together. But over the course of this apocalypse’s duration, Strange learns that the march of time is not a predator. Nor is it quite the companion Captain Picard thought it was all those years ago. If anything, time is a teacher – instructing us through experience with lessons that are, on occasion, fucking harsh. But if we learn from them and grow through them, rather than waste time wishing for a past that was gone as soon as the present hit it, we will emerge better than we were. The watch he keeps carrying around is symbolic of this – a broken relic of the past he can never return to that ends up as a reminder of the lessons that past taught him. Like his hands, which he very pointedly does not heal by the end, despite the fact he easily could. The lessons those scars represent wound up saving the world – hell, the entire universe. Thus does Strange alone earn the title “superhero.”
This sounds like basic shit – Good Superhero Movie Making 101 – because it is. But that basic shit’s gotten drowned out in a hail of noise and cross-promotions and endless fucking trailers. It’s nice to see someone still remembers. Besides Zach Snyder.
At the same time, there is some innovation in the “how to show magic in live action” game. All the reality-warping powers everyone gets in the mirror dimension are like red meat to an old M.C. Escher fan like me, especially during the mid-film fight/chase scene through mirror-universe-Manhattan. Fuck all the comparisons to Inception you might’ve read. If this had come out in 2007 or 8, all the same hacks would’ve compared it to the Matrix, and they’d have an even stronger case. This is exactly the kind of shit I expected Neo to get up to in Reloaded. Why waste time Kung Fu figh-ting when you can fold up the ground under your opponent’s feet like an old shirt? Or send it flying into the sky? Hell, teleport it to the surface of Jupiter, assuming such a thing exists. Even if doesn’t, the high-pressure helium sea will crush ’em like a beer can, so you and Science win either way.
It’s better than the usual magic energy blasts, or magic melee weapons, which also make and appearance. Some Strange fans (that I know and who told me this personally) feel Our Hero comes to believe in magic too soon. They rightly point out all previous versions of his origin have given him a long lead-up to that point. After it, most – if not all – of his natural affinity for the mystic arts are unlocked. Here, he takes a guided tour of the Multiverse and only learns his specific skills gradually as the film goes on. However, I vastly prefer this, because it makes for a better movie, and it makes our protagonist far more relate-able than all the half-baked one-liners in the world.
Just like in real life, half-trained amateurs will either be the death of us all, or they’ll save us all by thinking outside the box for the first time in literal ages. Rather than beat the Big Bad with a giant explosion (as in all his previous film incarnations) they’ll beat him with Groundhog Day. Being trapped in a time-loop is bad enough for those of us who have to experience linear time moment after grinding, humiliating, demoralizing moment. For an entity that transcends linear time, it must be pure, unalloyed hell. Who would want to conquer a universe infested with that shit? Best to strike a deal with its designated defender and leave as soon as possible.
Now that’s the Dr. Strange I know. These days, my measurement for all new Stranges these days is, “Would I trust this motherfucker to convince the animating life force of Eternity to not destroy Earth?” By the end of this film, this Strange demonstrates he’s got the chops. Believe it or not, this was an open question for me, for most of the film’s runtime. Because Bennedict Cumber-Strange is also subject to another trend I’ve seen more and more as time goes on, where the Protagonist (especially a sci-fi or fantasy Protagonist) must, as if by some unwritten law, maintain ironic distance from the plot of his film, even as he participates in it 110%. We see this in all the bad jokes Strange substitutes for a real personality. The one personal detail we get from him is his Wiki-pedic knowledge of pop songs from the 70s – like Bob Seger’s “Kathmandu.” I call this phenomenon “the Chris Pratt-ening,” after its most obvious Typhoid Mary. Though Ryan Reynolds is really Patient Zero, and I would name the damn thing after him, but he’s made one good Deadpool film since the idea first struck me, so all of my colleagues have, apparently, forgiven all his past transgressions.
There are plenty of transgressions to go around. Strange’s once-and-potentially-future love interest, Christine gets one of the shortest ends of one of the shortest sticks I’ve seen a love interest get in quite sometime. Even Copycat (sorry – I mean, Vanessa) got more scenes and more of a personality. Though, on the other hand, Christine never gets kidnapped. Nor is she a haunted car. So her plus and minus columns are pretty much evened out. Which is a pretty good summary of the film itself, now that I think about it.
Let’s see about ending on a positive…I like the climactic battle in the streets of Hong Kong, where Our Heroes and Villains battle as an apocalyptic event reverses itself around them. That’s novel. Always knew this Derrickson kid had some skills. I like how there’s a “Kids, don’t drive distracted” line burred in the end credits, the third bit in a running joke about warnings coming after the instructions. Also kind of like how these Marvel movies have jumped on one of James Bond’s bandwaggons and now they all include a credit that reads, “(Character who’s name is in the title) will return.” As if there’s any fucking doubt. You put a trailer for Strange’s next movie in the post-credit scene…which I suppose I should appreciate. At least it’s not a trailer for someone else’s films – oh wait, there’s one of those too. Fuck!