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Marvel’s ‘Dr. Strange’: Visually dazzling yet somehow sterile

Written By | Dec 24, 2016

Promotional image of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange from the film Doctor Strange. (Via Wikipedia entry on the film. Image Copyright Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, used here to illustrate a review of this film.)

WASHINGTON, December 23, 2016 – “Doctor Strange” is probably the flashiest movie yet to come out of Marvel Studios. The visual manner in which Stephen Strange (portrayed by the versatile Benedict Cumberbatch) and his cohorts cast spells on the silver screen is amazingly distinctive. Even better, the visual landscape shifts constantly like a kaleidoscope along with each intricately evolving spell.

Promotional poster for film “Doctor Strange.” (Via Wikipedia entry on the film. Image Copyright Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, used here to illustrate a review of this film.)

But for all its dazzling visuals, there’s something a little sterile about “Doctor Strange” that bears further examination.

For its own part, the cinematic and monetary spell that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has long cast on moviegoers is a big deal. It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon – the cinema landscape is seemingly crawling with the superhero genre now – but that would make it easy to casually deny Marvel’s huge cultural footprint, one that continues to grow with each new Marvel release.

Marvel movies make a considerable amount of money and are rarely considered critical failures. The now Disney-run franchise has managed to find a successful creative and marketing formula that somehow transforms each film into a cinematic main event. For action movie fans, missing a Marvel movie puts one’s personal reputation at risk.

Since Marvel movies carry such cultural weight, the fans that regularly follow these films are spread across a considerable demographic divide, creating a diverse fanbase like none other. For that reason, there have been increasing calls for Marvel to reflect the diversity of that fanbase with each successive film. While there have been a few moves in that direction, a significant number of fans are clamoring for something more substantial.

With the release of “Doctor Strange,” calls for diversity intensified somewhat, driven by the fact that the source material has significant ties to reap (or imagined) Asian culture. When artist Steve Ditko created Doctor Strange in 1963, his character was heavily indebted to the aura surrounding mystical Asian stereotypes—or at least what America at the time imagined them to be.

The initial Strange evolved at first, seemingly without a typical origin story in mind. But when Ditko began to craft the story in earnest, Doctor Strange became Dr. Stephen Strange and his characters and features became more Eurocentric.

Doctor Strange’s “secret origin” began with the but now-former neurosurgeon’s pilgrimage to Nepal after a serious accident destroyed the fine motor skills of his hands, ending his celebrated medical career. He sought spiritual guidance and found it in an unexpected way through his encounters with a mysterious figure known as the Ancient One.

After undergoing rigorous training in the physical, mystical and magical arts, he evolved to become the new Sorcerer Supreme. It’s this origin story that forms the crux of “Doctor Strange” the film, which at times almost drips with stereotypical Asian mysticism, something that held a particular fascination for Steve Ditko.

The film distances itself from certain aspects of Doctor Strange’s origin, instead leaning into different areas, which, in some cases, weren’t present in the comic book source material. This choice creates some problems.

The first one involves the role of the Ancient One, portrayed in this film by well-known actress Tilda Swinton. When Doctor Strange the Comic Book was created (1963), it goes without saying that the times and customs of that era were quite different from those of today, during which racial and ethnic characters are meticulously and—hopefully—authentically rendered.

As originally conceived, Marvel’s Ancient One would seem disturbingly simplistic and stereotypical to modern fans and movie audiences. For that reason, distancing the original character from these roots makes sense. But at the same it exposes another issue in this film and, in a wider sense, throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the dearth of actual Asian characters.

Yes, it’s a Catch-22, given that the movie’s Ancient One is a female of Celtic origin. But at the same time, there’s no reason why Marvel/Disney shouldn’t have just bitten the bullet and cast the Ancient One with an Asian actor, thus stretching Marvel’s Universe beyond its North American and European influences.

Even more problematic: the character of the Ancient One is relatively underdeveloped, and seems driven by murky motivations. This pays off to some extent in the film’s plot structure.

But, character wise, the actual character of the Ancient One is thinly sketched, and it’s only propped up by the considerable talents of Tilda Swinton. Perhaps that was one of the reasons she was cast in this role in the first place. Such ambiguity involving both mentor and villain figures in Marvel films is an ongoing problem for this studio.

This reviewer, at least, finds it hard not to focus on issues like these while viewing the film. That’s because there just really isn’t a lot else that holds this movie together. “Doctor Strange” is almost certainly the flashiest movie to come out of Marvel Studios to date.

But often, that flashiness is about it. There is a distinctiveness in the way Strange and his cohorts cast spells, and, as those spells unfold, the film’s visual landscape morphs constantly in riveting, mesmerizing patterns as if time and space are burst apart in a fractyl universe that’s almost out of control. Yet at the same time, there’s something a little sterile and un-human about it.

This forces a follow-up question: What purpose do these wild CGI effect serve in this film? The simple answer is that we, the audience, like Stephen Strange himself, must completely alter our own familiar perception of reality. Yet visually, at least, the film’s depiction of a warping reality always feels cosmetic and nothing organic seems to evolve from it as the same or nearly the same visual patterns are used over and over again.

There’s so much talk in “Dr. Strange” about expanding our world or worlds as the case may be, as if our entire creation mythology and science requires a reset. Yet there’s not much intellectual or emotional pay-off in this area. So what could have been this film’s philosophical center feels hollow from the start.

True, various characters will offer platitudinous speeches outlining what they intend to do with other planes of reality. But little if any time is spent exploring any of those ideas or the strange world of Doctor Strange in general.

Part of this may have to do with the public perception of this character. Many in this film’s intended audience just doesn’t know who Dr. Stephen Strange. Unlike other superhero characters – even the ones already residing in the MCU – it’s paramount for the audience to actually get to know who this character is and what drives him. This film might just be one time in a long time where spending most of its running time on the central character’s origin story is more or less justified.

In that case, we could more profitably view this film as an extensive set up to tell the story of how Dr. Stephen Strange, neurosurgeon, transformed a brilliant, Western-style medical career into becoming the Sorcerer Supreme. However, the film’s treatment of the story, at least in the first 40 minutes or so of its running time, jumps from tragic drama to screwball comedy to standard action. In the process, the film carefully builds Strange’s original world only to tear it down in the end, discarding these details because they aren’t important to the larger picture.

Where the character of Dr. Strange needs to be by the end of the film isn’t an organic fit with the kind of character they spent an entire film creating. Additionally, the audience is never allowed to forget that Doctor Strange takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though there’s little evidence of it. In fact, no preexisting Marvel character shows up until the expected post-credits teaser, which is only meant to set up the next Marvel film.

It isn’t hard to imagine a movie in which Doctor Strange is allowed to exist on his own without being forced to manipulate the core concept or shoehorn it into a fit with the wider MCU. There’s the scraps of a more interesting and in-depth film in the current one that could be developed with more time and attention. The most engaging episodes in the movie, like the developing relationship between Mordo and Strange, do suggest a more thoughtful movie might have once existed at its core.

Like its predecessors, “Doctor Strange” highlight the problems inherent in keeping Marvel Cinematic Universe together as a coherent whole. The studio clearly wants to expand their corner of the genre, but without upsetting the great movie-making machine that’s been built. For all its distinctiveness, “Dr. Strange” offers proof that this will be increasingly hard to do.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.