Doctor Strange (2007)

Our review of the 2007 straight-to-the-Clearance-bin animated origin story of Marvel Comics’ Sorcerer Supreme. Better than the swift kicks to the groin that were every other superhero movie released in 2007…but that’s not saying much.


A lack of time and money has doomed many a good idea to Development Hell for decades, while stripping other good ideas down to their bare asses, the better for everyone to have a good laugh at them and anyone dumb enough to declare their fandom. {They’re all gonna laugh at you.} For example, Doctor Strange. Specifically, the 2007 straight-to-DVD animated feature the then-new Marvel Studios made in conjunction with LionsGate.

Times are tough out there, and a young movie studio looking to test the waters could do a lot worse than pour relatively-cheap material into the Wal-Marts of America and their local equivalents the world over. Problem being, some things can’t be done cheap and well at the same time. Dr. Strange, the TV movie from 1978, proved that, especially since no one remembers it. Hell, I can barely remember it and I reviewed the damn thing. {“I wish I could say some magic words and summon up a good Dr. Strange movie.”}. Same here, Past Me. But wish in one hand, shit in the other…

Doctor Strange-open-bracket-2007-close-bracket isn’t outright shit. But you’d never know it from the rest of the internet. Dr. Strange fans heaped their hate upon this sucker for many and various reasons I’ll address later, because I sympathize with most of them. Non-fans ignored it because Modern Strange exists in a media landscape whose understanding of magic has been permanently warped. Because – and we have to face facts here, folks – we’re living in a post-Harry Potter world. A world where everyone in the Fantasy asles of our dwindling number of bookstores seems to’ve rededicated themselves to making magic as boring as possible.

This is a major factor in The Boy Who Lived’s enduring worldwide popularity: far-out concepts juxtaposed with the instantly-recognizable domesticity of an English Boarding School. It taught a world’s worth of moviegoers that “Fantasy” is code for “A Campbellian Heroes Journey where all the technobable’s in faux-Latin and people fight with wands and swords instead of guns.” If characters use guns – or knives, or fists, or any similarly mundane tool – the Fantasy’s called an “Action Movie,” so the people who like Action movies can hold themselves superior to other species of “Fantasy nonsense.” After all, their “Fantasy nonsense” is more “realisitc.” There’s guns in it.

And that’s why this {Shot of movie footage} is the closet thing we’ve seen to a Dr. Strange film, even now that Marvel’s a bought-and-paid-for vassal of the Disney Empire. And while this is, fundamentally, yet another story of an extraordinary white male’s self-discovery saving the world, it provides a few guide-posts for why other magic-based characters have attracted little to no mainstream attention, no matter how much they rip-J.K. Rowling off.

Guidepost #1: The Tyranny of The “Relatable” Protagonist. And there are few bastards in Marvel universe as complete as Dr. Stephen Strange. The fear of making him such was what doomed his 70s incarnation to being so damn bland, reducing him down to another bland dude with a sweet ‘stache. Like there weren’t enough of those to go around in the 70s.

Strange ’07 is allowed the privilege of beginning as an aloof jerk with a stick so far up his ass he can use it to scratch his brains. [“Would a medical journal be interested in Mrs….?”] but the discerning Strange fan is going to have to grit their teeth for awhile. This version of the doctor’s very obviously carrying around a ton of baggage. He’s withdrawn and sullen and bitchy, not just because he’s Tony Stark recast as a surgeon (which he totally was – the two are practically twins, debuting four months apart from each other), but because his sister died under his care. After he got his medical degree (we’re strongly led to infer) specifically so he could treat her. Because it’s not the 60s any more and who would want to be a neurosurgeon without some deep personal motivation? Besides,

{Guidepost 2: “I always think it adds resonance to a hero’s mission to have some defining element of tragedy in his background, don’t you?”} Well, yes. But there’s no reason to give everyone the same Defining Element of Tragedy. That’s what makes me mad, in the multiplex and the comic shops: the crushing sameness. I know it’s driven by marking logic, but that doesn’t help, because I can tell that logic’s itself driven by Fear. Fear’s driven both major publishers to spend the last twenty years making everything they own as much like Batman as possible, because Batman moves units. So: Dead Relatives for everyone! and they all must be brooding loners, incapable of long term relationships of any kind, with anyone. It certainly makes origin stories easier to tell: the protagonist’s character arc becomes all about them getting over their past baggage, stepping boldly into a new world, and accepting the aid of the new allies that come with it. And if you don’t like it {Jimmy: “you can just pass the blunt to the nigga on your left.”} because guess what: that’s at least half of every story ever made. The other half are stories where people don’t get over their baggage, and we call those horror movies.

This could’ve gone for the horror movie route – it certainly spends the first third of its length putting its protagonist through absolute Hell – a car crash, debilitating hand injuries, a painful recovery, and a search for some miracle treatment that leaves Our Hero destitute, begging a plane ticket to Tibet off of his ex-girlfriend. (And seriously, how desperate was she to get Strange far, far away that she actually gave him the money?) Once in the Mysterious East, he trains to be a hero, discovers hidden potential within himself and saves his home town from an existential threat through the medium of action scenes. Structurally, it’s a lean, mean, plot-driving machine that doesn’t really care over-much about the people whose names aren’t in the title. They exist, but more to reflect the hero back on himself than anything else. Seriously, the only characters in the Hidden City who get any kind of development are Mordo, The Ancient One and Wong. The rest are relegated to the level of Slasher Victims, most of whom don’t even speak…so I think I just accidentally insulted every Slasher movie ever made. My bad.

That’s the cheapness we talked about. At least Warner Brothers has a stable of voice actors on speed-dial, and have since poached most of Marvel’s animation directing talent. The writers, though, even with a cast pared down to five characters, have to cram all their shit in between flashy action scenes. Inconsistency abounds. Like: why wait until the poor man’s jumped off a bridge before interceding? Who are you trying to be, Wong? Spawn? And why would anyone sell out their entire dimension to Dormamu? At least Mordo’s played by Kevin Michael Richardson, who’s always awesome, and I get it: he’s pissed. The Ancient One spent all this damn time training him to kick ass and kill giant monsters with swords, then, in walks this joker. No street smarts, nothing. And everybody fawns over him. That’d hurt your pride, and it makes Mordo more sympathetic than any of the villains in the Justice League’s movies. But fuck’s sake, look at Dormamu! He’s too well designed! Whatever he promised you, there’s no way you can trust it! He’s Evil! And for all his supposed power, the Ancient One goes down way too easy at the hands…well, teeth…of Dormamu’s Langoleers. Another victim on the pile so we can end things with Strange and Wong as the last men standing. Instead of taking ten years to struggle and learn and grow into his role as Sorcerer Supreme, this Strange pretty much inherits the title by default. Everyone else either died or turned evil. Guess we know what he and Wong will be doing in the sequel we’ll probably never see.

The worst thing you could call this movie is a Karate Kid rip-off, which it totally is – as much, if not moreso, than a Batman Begins rip-off, which I was tempted to call it before I saw the Not-So-Amazing Spider-Man. In those grand tradition, it eschews the Harry Potter practice of stopping the movie dead in its tracks for a class and goes straight for the training montage…es. And while most of Strange’s comic book fights involve him and someone else shouting spells at each other from across a room, the fighters in this movie go for swords because everybody knows what swords are, right? And what they can do? While this is a bit of a letdown, it makes Strange’s one good move in the climactic battle all the more awesome. Because, when you can control the fundamental forces of the universe, fuck swords, amIright?

A lot of Karate Kid rip-offs brought in a mystical element sooner or later, with my favorite being No Retreat, No Surrender, which brought in the Ghost of Bruce Lee. The Ancient One here is pretty good, if nowhere near as St. Bruce’s level, and their teachings boil down to the same essential message. {You be quick and direct, utilizing chi. The result is power.} There’s fuck-all discussion of how magic works or what it’s wielders concern themselves with whenever Dark Lords of chaos aren’t trying to punch their way into our world, but that can be a good thing. Too much of it can bog the narrative down and make the middle of your movie a gigantic slog. See also, every Harry Potter movie except the last one.

Still, no matter how rushed and cheap these straight to video features might be (and the animation does get a little cheap when it comes to physical fighting) you never know when the Langoleers might show up. Or when a coma ward’s worth of possessed children might vomit a fire demon into the streets of New York. It’s a flattening and distortion of Strange’s origin, yes, but that’s still weirder and wilder than anything live action superhero fare managed to pull off until Summer, 2012. It’s a better adaptation than Strange ’78…but, at the same time, that TV movie wasn’t quite so defensive. It realized the Good Doctor’s original appeal lay – not just in that he’s a hero who grapples with magic in the Modern World – but also a hero who travels to other, freaky, alternate dimensions that’ve tested the creative powers of artists for the last five decades. Places where the laws of physics are all kinds of crazy, allowing anyone to draw pretty much any damn thing they can image. We get a peek at that here inside the Sanctum and inside Dormamu’s Dark Dimension, here, but that’s it. As if the filmmakers feared moving the action off Earth would lose the audience. As if the stigmas attached to magic, superheroes, comic books, and animation weren’t going to do that already.

Who knows – it just might have. But on the other hand, fuck that – that’s just more Fear, talking at you. If your audience has already let go of, or seen through, those four stigmas, so much so that they’ve bought and watched all seventy-five minutes of your Dr. Strange movie, they’re going to be in for the long haul. I know for a fact today’s Internet-based Film Commentators have no problem with stories about freaky, parallel worlds. I’ve spent over a year listening to all of them and their moms natter at me about something called “John Dies at the End…”

Evil Me: Oh, it’s wonderful. You should totally review it.

Me:…are you serious…?

Evil Me: Can’t you tell? This is my serious face. {TO BE CONTINUED}


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