Doctor Strange Shows the Limits of Comic Books as Movies

Directed by Scott Derrickson
Marvel Studios, 115 minutes, PG-13

Doctor Strange features fine performances, eye-popping visuals, and wall-to-wall action sequences. It’s also a narrative mess.

Name a great superhero film—not a blockbuster, eye candy, or escapist fluff. Name a superhero movie that wins major awards, is analyzed by serious film scholars, and is studied by film students. Hollywood keeps making superhero movies, but they are little more than comic book diversions that move. I’ve nothing against comics, but as an art form they occupy a liminal space between reality and fantasy. Birdman was a great film because it’s about a man who plays a superhero and becomes unhinged enough to imagine himself one; 2001, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Blade Runner are path-breaking films because they created alternative worlds with their own internal logic. By contrast, most comics dwell partly in the real world and partly in a magical realm and ask you to suspend disbelief. That works fine with teens, who also live in a liminal space: the one between being and becoming. They outgrow it eventually.

Please excuse the detour, but the above phenomenon is exactly why Doctor Strange is a soon-to-be-forgotten flavor of the month. It’s based on a comic book character that debuted in 1963, though director Scott Derrickson takes some liberties with the on/off-again Marvel series. The Doctor is Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a neurosurgeon whose brilliance is surpassed only by his ego. That changes in a horrible car crash that leaves him with quaking hands, a shattered sense of purpose, and a refusal to accept his fate. The ego remains intact, though, which means he pushes aside a potential love interest, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and thinks all the world experts are idiots for telling him that he can’t be magically healed.

In fact, magic is just the ticket, but not in the way Stephen thinks. An exchange with a “healed” paraplegic sends Stephen scurrying off to Kathmandu, where he encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Let the clichés, pseudo-science, and recycling begin. Stephen must, of course, move beyond ego and conceit. (Think Arya Stark in Game of Thrones mixed with warmed-over Buddhism.) Stephen can’t be healed, but once you know that life is something of an illusion and that various realities coexist, magic is an energy path one uses to traverse space, time, and the laws of physics. You might recognize elements of the multiverse in this, but don’t expect hard science. Stephen’s training parallels that of movie Zen masters and sword-and-sandal gladiators, with the storyline shifting from science to science fiction and quasi-religious mumbo jumbo. Unless you’re a devotee of Doctor Strange comics, don’t even try to follow the explanation for what will happen next—it’s all pretext for an astral-level showdown between good and evil involving props such as ancient ritual books, altered reality, the Infinity Stone, and the Cloak of Levitation. In short, Stephen must combat an apostate sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers, who have tapped into the Dark Dimension and the power of Dormammu. If they bad guys sound a lot like Tolkien’s Saruman and Sauron, who am I to dissuade your rip-off fears? Folklore holds that the creators of the original comic were LSD users. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can say that there are luridly colored sequences in this film that are like being inside a Three-D acid rock poster circa 1967.   

I didn’t hate this film. Cumberbatch is very good in it, as is Swinton, Mikkelsen, and Stephen’s compatriot good guys Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Ms. McAdams is always a pleasant treat, though one could certainly renew debates over how even women with important skills (neurosurgeon) are defined by their relationships to men. Sexism isn’t what’s wrong with the film, though. Nor is over-reliance on f/x—most of it is amazing on a technical level. In my estimation, the comic book genre is inherently flawed for filmmakers. Which world do we believe in, the one governed by the laws of physics or the one ruled by magic? Incessantly mixing them ultimately means there is no consistent logic in either realm, so all that’s left is wicked cool visuals. “How was the film?” we are asked. All we can say is, “It was okay.” We’ve just spent two hours experiencing the frisson of excitement, but when we leave the theater, we recall nothing intellectual, consequential, or enduring from the experience. As adults, we know superheroes exist only in flickering lights on a screen that has grown dark.

Rob Weir      

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