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Breaking the Spell of Doctor Strange

Or, I Liked Doctor Strange…And Yet I Don’t Know Why

By Matt CatesPublished 7 years ago 15 min read
Doc Strange, messing with your mind

Doctor Strange is a titanic jerk.

If I had to pick any Marvel Cinematic Universe character—including the villains—to have a latte and scone with, Stephen Strange would be between Malekith (Thor 2) and the Hulk…and that’s only because Hulk and I probably wouldn’t have much to talk about, unless he secretly likes Seinfeld.

And yet I did enjoy the movie, once I got past Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent…and once I managed to switch my brain off and ignore the mangled script. So here’s a relatively spoiler-free review of the flick, for those fence-sitters who haven’t bought their tickets yet!

First—unlike some of the early Phase I MCU films which tried to start off “realistically,” Doctor Strange is totally unfettered by any such coyness. It leaps boots first into the weirdness, only taking a brief respite to introduce the protagonist, crash him up a bit, then dump his raggedy behind in Kathmandu. Writing-wise, I think that’s a fine practice when introducing an alien world or dimension; just rip the bandage right off! Let ‘em know what’s in store from the get-go.

Meet Kaecilius

The movie kicks off with villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, though he’ll always be Le Chiffre from Casino Royale to me) literally stealing a page from an ancient book of spells, which he intends to use to pave the way for his evil new mentor—interdimensional cosmic bad guy Dormammu.

Kaecilius was once a good guy spell-caster, now turned to the dark side…but his desire for immortality via Dormammu’s absorption of Earth does come off as a bit naïve. One look at Dormammu and you can tell, he ain’t the type of dude you would even loan your lawnmower to, much less entrust the fate of the cosmos.

Still, Kaecilius is obsessed with never dying and is convinced he can save himself and, oh what the heck, the rest of humanity from that pesky thing called mortality. Seems like a decent enough chap, someone you could perhaps sympathize with…until he starts cutting people’s heads off. Then you start to wonder about the guy.

Overall, the opening was so-so. The special effects were out of this world but the story and characters? Too reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger, and that scene where Skull hunts down the Cosmic Cube. Just replace Skull with Kaecilius and the Cube with a scrap of paper.

Breaking the Doctor

But to return to our doctor… We meet Strange in the top of his field, a steady-handed brain surgeon who only accepts the toughest cases, the ones that’ll land his name in the medical journals and garner him yet another accolade. The writers crafted him as a callous and conceited protagonist, another early model Tony Stark but with less money, less charisma, and a colder heart. Much of Stark’s callousness is a sham, as we learn, but with Strange it seems genuine. He really is a bastard, or at least is written that way.

So when his luxury sports car goes off a cliff, the viewer doesn’t take nearly as much pity as, say, when Stark’s Humvee was attacked in Afghanistan. And when Strange wakes up in the hospital and starts blaming the staff which saved his life for not patching him up better, well—you almost wish he hadn’t woke up at all. To top it off, he cruelly (and pointlessly) berates his ex (the ever-sweet Rachel McAdams) after she stops by to check up on him, leaving her in tears and leaving us wondering:

Surely this can’t be the next hero in Marvel’s pantheon?

But Marvel likes to take chances, to give us something different each time, and with Strange they have. They’ve handed over a pompous ass and asked us to root for him. But the rooting comes later, for they aren’t dummies over there, after all. They know, and they know we know, he must first be torn down and rebuilt before we’ll accept him as the Sorcerer Supreme we all know and love from the comics.

And thus they proceed to tear him down as we relish in his torment. It’s sort of, well, strange…

Strange makes his living with his hands, which are utterly ruined by the car wreck. So he becomes compelled to find a way, any way, to get the use of them back. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, wherever he has to go…it is the driving force behind his every waking moment, but no one seems to have a method which can restore his lost functionality.

UNTIL…he hears a story from his physical therapist (derisively called “Bachelor’s Degree”) about a man who miraculously regained the use of his legs against all medical probability. Strange asks for the patient’s file and, in probably a severe breach of health record privacy, receives it in the mail a few days later. I give the story a pass on this minor point; but it is an example of several little details which would probably never happen in real life.

And yes, I say that tongue in cheek since MOST of the things in Marvel films would never happen in real life!

Goin' to Kathmandu

So Strange tracks the healed man down and insists on hearing the story of the man’s recovery. And we get yet another point in the script which come off as weak. Strange hears the man tell of his mystical recovery at “Kamar-Taj.” With only about five seconds of dubious explanation, Strange is convinced he too must voyage to this Kamar-Taj to discover the medical secrets of the man’s seemingly impossible healing.

I realize we’re operating on a compressed timeline in films, but still, it’s not much reason to tear off to Asia. But, off he goes to Kathmandu, capital city of Nepal, really looking the part of the eco-tourist with his scruffy beard and backpacker’s attire, a far cry from the man we’d seen prior. And yet inside he’s the same difficult-to-like, entitled blowhard, now stumbling around town like a drunk, asking passersby if they know where “Kamar-Taj” is.

Seems like he would have Googled it or tried to make an appointment or something prior to flying in, no? And yet we’re expected to believe three things here: 1) that he believes the place exists but is ultra-secretive and therefore not found in any online search; 2) that random people in the street will be able to point the way; 3) that it is a real medical research facility that no one knows about, versus some mystical holistic retreat, a place which can legitimately offer advanced, real-world restorative treatment options to the select few patients who are willing to make the effort to locate it. And that’s according to Strange himself, as we’ll soon hear.

Fine, whatever. I give it a pass just because we have to move on.

Of course he cannot find Kamar-Taj on his own, but luckily he’s saved during street robbery by one of the Kamar-Taj’s top students, Mordo. Mordor saves Strange from a beat-down and leads him to the secretive building where he insists Strange must be respectful upon entry, for Strange has started in with the snide jokes about the name of the place.

This, to me, underlies my point that the script is weak here. Either Strange believes he’s gone to a legitimate place, or he doesn’t.

If he’s joking about the hippy-sounding name, then he is expressing his internal doubts about the legitimacy of the facility. If he has such doubts, why did he go there in the first place, based on an extraordinarily flimsy account by one patient he only met for a minute??

But the scene does accomplish one thing which writers often do, especially in Marvel films. It acknowledges the ridiculousness of the situation by having the main character vocalize it. If the hero recognizes how absurd it all is, then that’s because the writer knows the audience is going to be thinking the same thing…so the writer is trying to address it upfront, so they can move past it.

Strange pokes fun at the name and is rebuked by Mordo. It happens again upon meeting “the Ancient One.” Clearly the audience is thinking, “ooh, the Ancient One, how original!” So Strange himself basically says it for us, and Mordo, in all earnestness, chastises him.

Another clear example of this writing trick was done in Iron Man 2. The actor playing Colonel Rhodes in Iron Man, Terrance Howard, had been inexplicably replaced for the sequel by Don Cheadle. Rhodey himself brings it up in his first scene in Iron Man 2, saying, “Look, it’s me, I’m here. Deal with it; let’s move on.” It was a very in-your-face play made for the audience who was wondering, “Where the heck is Terrance Howard?” Not quite breaking the Fourth Wall (the screen) but definitely wagging a finger at the viewers. So Doctor Strange tries a similar tactic, by having Strange sort of openly mock his situation.

I found it unnecessary. We’d already been introduced to the trippy reality-warping opening scene…which featured the Ancient One battling Kaecilius. But that’s not the only reason the stunt backfires. Moments later, upon hearing from the Ancient One herself that Kamar-Taj is NOT a medical facility of any kind, and that all of his healing must come from within his own mind, Strange spirals into an overacting rage!

Open Your Mind and Take a Trip

Freak out time

It defies credibility. Why? Because it was he that sought out the place; he that went there with assumptions; he that was welcomed into their retreat despite having no connection to the place.

And now suddenly, upon meeting the very calm and hospital Ancient One (played to perfection by Tilda Swinton, who, at age 56, may herself be immortal judging by her ageless looks) who attempts to explain exactly what it is they do at Kamar-Taj, Strange starts yelling and insulting her for not practicing real medicine.

But she never made any such claims!

No one, at any time, told him it was a medical facility.

And moments early he was joking about the place. So the scene really comes off poorly, especially when he tries to actually physically attack the Ancient One (bad move, buddy!). That pulled me out of the movie for a moment (no pass for you!), but luckily not for long—because her catlike reflexes kicked in and she shoved Strange right out of his own body!

Once again we in the seats were joyed to watch this guy get his comeuppance…just as we were all equally delighted that the special effects we’d had a tantalizing taste of in the opening scene were now returning, to take us—and Strange—out of this somewhat ho-hum scenario.

Yes the movie was now getting into the swing of things, and not a moment too soon. It’s always a problem with origin stories. You have to get through the introductions, see the character at their worst in order for the film to make way for their growth arc. Tony Stark was an arrogant arms dealer; Thor was a reckless, prideful heir to the throne of Asgard; Steve Rogers was a featherweight kid too frail to even volunteer for military service…but Stephen Strange really is apart from the rest. The early segment of his origin tale is really no fun to watch at all, and it’s a blessing to finally get beyond it and onto the magic—that new era the MCU has been introducing bit by bit.

Phase I’s Thor opened the gates to other worlds. Captain America’s Cosmic Cube showed the power of otherworldly weapons mixed up in Earthly affairs. The Avengers shuffled the two together, and literally ripped open a portal for other dimensional beings to invade our world.

Things were getting very comic-booky very quick.

Phase II flung us far out there with Guardians of the Galaxy, followed by the introduction of magical abilities with Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, in Avengers: Age of Ultron. After that we got a deep look into the microverse Quantum Realm in Ant-Man. So there was no reason to pause in introducing other dimensions shown in Doctor Strange, and indeed the Ancient One gives it to him fire hydrant style—full blast!

There’s no slow build-up, no lengthy explanations. She sends him off like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, on the wildest trip we’ve yet seen, flying through the Astral Planes a la Dave at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (but with comic artist Jack Kirby as the special effects designer. It’s incredible how much the influence of his classic artwork can be spotted throughout…a real treat for old comic fans and a much needed reminder that this is a character with a very long and venerated history).

Ah yes, the Astral Planes (nod your head sagely, oh ye comic geeks of old).

Here is how Strange’s hubris finally weakens; here is where he sees how small and insignificant he is in the vast cosmic scheme. It doesn’t break him, but it wakes him up…as the Ancient One knew it would. She is wise, after all. Just look at her.

Bow before the Ancient One

Look at her…

Sorry, I haven’t been this infatuated with a bald lady since Lt. Ilia/V’Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

And so we finally get one of the film’s best moments, with a humbled Strange down on his knees, hands outstretched, begging the Ancient One, “Teach me.”

And then one of its funniest moments when instead he gets shoved out the front door like a bum!

FAST FORWARD: Strange is ultimately welcomed into the fold, where he begins learning ancient texts (in foreign languages that he doesn’t know) at an alarming speed. Wong, the librarian (and only real bit of light-heartedness in the movie), allows the new protégé access to the restricted part of the library…and also points out the Ancient One’s secret texts, which are forbidden (and yet tantalizingly right there!).

I don’t feel like going further into the minutia of the plot at this point. Strange, as you can expect, masters the magic arts faster than anyone ever has, and finds himself pit against Kaecilius. But not so much by choice as by, well, default. Which begs the question—how is Doctor Strange a hero?

Most heroes become heroes by living through a catastrophe of some sort which forces them to alter their life, makes them decide to dedicate themselves to stopping crime, villainy, etc. Stephen Strange doesn’t seem to have such a moment.

Throughout his training montage, he shows no desire to dedicate his life to any higher purpose. Wong explains the function of their group is to act as interdimensional versions of the Avengers, to protect and guard Earth against unspeakable forces which would do it harm.

But Strange doesn’t seem to want any part of that.

He only wants to heal his hands, a bit of a stretch when it comes to motivating factors when you consider that he has several other career options open for him. He could be a medical consultant, a university professor, a reality TV star, an author, a highly-paid lecturer. But no, no, he must work with his hands, he must be a hands-on surgeon. And he must heal at Kamar-Taj, that is his only reason for committing to the training. It is extremely narrow-minded and shallow, as hero motivations go. Nobody in his family was murdered in front of him, he wanted manipulated by the government, he didn’t feel guilty for producing weapons of mass destruction…none of that standard hero stuff for him…and I’m starting to run out of free passes.


Easy on the espressos, man!

And then there’s Kaecilius—the Lazy Villain.

Marvel has often come under fire for producing poor villains, with the notable exception of Loki. And though I somewhat disagree, because I think Red Skull, Whiplash, and Ultron are all incredible bad guys—I sort of see where they are coming from when it comes to dudes like Kaecilius. The acting is fine, but the performance is unmemorable to say the least.

Really. I can’t recall a single line, not one cool quote, from the villain or, to be fair, from anyone else. And the goons? Duller than dirt. There is not an interesting goon in the pack, just a handful of forgettable throwaways following a pretty forgettable antagonist.

I like Mads, I do. And there was nothing he could do to make the dialogue any better. He handled it as well as could be expected. But there was no scene-eating spectacle, and that’s what I want when the bad guy is up there.

Mickey Rourke as the psychotic Russian physicist Whiplash? I couldn’t take my eyes off his gold-toothed mug, and legend has it most of the craziest stuff was edited out.

Hugo Weaving as Red Skull? The guy knows how to seethe and menace, that’s for sure. He’s frightening, with or without the grotesque head.

And James Spader’s Ultron was surprisingly funny and personable for a malevolent A.I. I could watch him time and again and not get bored by the character.

But Kaecilius? Meh. He ain’t no Joker, I can tell ye that, me hearties.

Well, let me wind this thing down, because the plot isn’t worth delving too much more into. And I’ve griped enough about a movie that, to be honest, came out better than the sum of its parts somehow. By magic, perhaps…

Wrap Up

Dormammu in the Comics

So let me leave you with three more points I want to make, briefly:

1) Mads Mikkelsen wasn’t the only great actor wasted. Rachel McAdams was, too. Gwyneth Paltrow proved how a supporting female character can really put her stamp on a franchise, with her incredible take on Pepper Potts in the Iron Man films. McAdams wasn’t given that chance.

2) The climax with Dormammu was actually very inventive and surprising…worthy of the MCU, though I do think it could’ve been milked for a lot more drama, instead of being played as near comedy. For a film sorely lacking in humor, the end wasn’t the right time to try and be funny. But it did have the sort of imaginative comic-booky creativeness that I like to see!

3) Overall, despite all my complaints and nit-picking, I did like the movie! I can’t see myself watching it several times, as I have with Avengers or Iron Man. It’s more like 2008’s The Incredible Hulk—watch a couple times and you’re gonna be set for a good long while to come!

In my humble opinion…and unlike Stephen Strange I'm a humble guy!

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About the Creator

Matt Cates

Freelance writer and owner of Cates Content and Copywriting; retired Air Force Veteran; former administrative assistant at Oregon State University; author of Haveck: The First Transhuman, the greatest sci-fi novel in the multiverse.

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