Friday, June 2, 2023

Doctor Strange is a Fun, Trippy Ride

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If you’re planning on boycotting Marvel’s latest installment Doctor Strange, then go ahead. Hell, the director Scott Derrickson agrees with you.

White-washing and Orientalism aside, Derrickson’s Doctor Strange is one of the most mature and fun installments so far. It’s certainly the most visually astounding vehicle by far. Part acid trip, part Kung Fu: The Legend Returns, and just a dab of Big Trouble In Little China for some extra flavor.

Doctor Strange isn’t like his other counterparts. He’s stranger, more esoteric, more thoughtful, a total ass, and kooky. There’s a danger with a film like this. Go too wild and crazy, and you risk losing the audience. Take yourself too seriously, and you risk making the audience roll their eyes. Doctor Strange manages to walk the tightrope without faltering.

And it does it all without having any of its women prance about in skimpy clothing. Which, despite, all the controversy surrounding it, it should be given a standing ovation. A comic book movie that does not objectify any of its women is so rare it should be preserved in amber.

There will undoubtedly be a lot of talk about the stunning imagery and trippy visuals. As there should be because it is and they are. But the script is the real hero. Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill have cobbled together a rare thing: a comic book movie for adults.

Strange’s obsession and love with pop music for example. It pops up repeatedly throughout the film. A lesser film would have had Strange remember some obscure pop song and use the knowledge to help save the day. But not here. Here his love for pop music is just that, love.

Add to that this character quirk doesn’t make him instantly loveable. His arrogance toward another surgeon for making an honest mistake prevents that. His banter with his ex and fellow doctor Christine (Rachel McAdams) he clearly reveals himself to be a selfish jerk. The way he tears down everyone, Christine worst of all, who tries to help him after the car accident, all of this makes him startlingly unlikeable.

It was refreshing to sit in a comic book movie and see an arrogant, selfish, petty jerk and not be asked to love him. The arrogant genius trope is so utterly annoying precisely because they temper it with attempts to make him loveable. People are not divided up into loveable and not. They’re more complicated than that, and Doctor Strange recognizes this.

The car crash that damages his hands makes Strange all the more bitter and meaner. Surgeon after surgeon tells him his hands can not be repaired. And because Stephen knows everything he knows that they are wrong. Finally, his desperation leads him to Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt). A man similar to Stephen who has come back with the full use of his nerves.

Pangborn tells Stephen to go to Kathmandu, to a “clinic,” Kamar-Taj. He does, spending his last penny, he arrives. Strange wanders lost until a monk named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds him and takes him to Kamar-Taj. There he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and his training begins.

One of the many surprises the film holds is the Ancient One has her own story. Her arc is her accepting something she does not want to be true, about herself and life. As she repeatedly tells Strange, “It’s not about you.”

The villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is another in a long line of Marvel powerful yet uninteresting villains. Mikkelsen does his level best, but here the script falters. His motivation is the standard, “I’ve lost everything so everyone must pay.” It’s tired, and cliche, and I wish Marvel and DC would put it to rest.

The movie is fun and funny, and just solidly written. Yes, the visuals, are amazing and should be seen on the big screen, some of the dimensions look like they are torn right from the pages drawn by Steve Ditko. Yes, the fight scenes are great fun and well edited.

It’s the writing and characterization that elevates this movie. I loved, Kaecilius aside, the characters, had contradictory beliefs. The cognitive dissonance between believing something and then realizing that practically it’s untenable.

I loved Strange’s resolution to the film’s climax. It’s refreshing to see a film spend its time showing us how intelligent our hero is only to have them use their intelligence to save the day. Often we’re treated to intelligent characters reduced to car chases or shoot outs. On top of that, it’s way for the character to redeem himself, not by asking us to, but by actually doing something redeemable.

I enjoyed Strange’s solution. It’s amusing and witty. But most of all it’s totally in keeping with the character logic the movie has been laboring to establish. A script that follows character logic? Maybe the world isn’t ending after all.

Doctor Strange is a comic book movie that excels in some areas and falters in others. There is a scene where Strange talks about Beyonce. Maybe I was wrong, and the film does try and make you love him, I mean who can be awful and adore Beyonce. Or maybe he’s just complicated like that.

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios


  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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