Stephen Strange is a hot-shot surgeon and an asshole. A car accident leaves his body significantly damaged, with special disfiguring attention given to his hands. Western medicine can’t heal him so Strange heads east, takes up with a group of wizards led by a white woman and becomes Doctor Strange. These details unfold in Doctor Strange about this dramatically.
Doctor Strange hits its marks dutifully. It’s 100% origin story, and because Doctor Strange is not a particularly well-known Marvel hero, that story is given as few complications as possible. Had girl, doesn’t anymore. Was a master surgeon, isn’t anymore. Had ego, learns to overcome it. Was a brilliant surgeoun, learns magic.
If I’m being a little cynical here, I hope you’ll forgive me. Doctor Strange is a satisfying action-fantasy film, and I don’t mean to put it down unjustly. Many people will like this movie and you all already know who you are. It will make a lot of money. Benedict Cumberbatch will add another beloved character to his resume of genre franchise performances. Everyone in a certain, sizable portion of the movie going public will be happy about Doctor Strange.
Nobody should be happier about Doctor Strange than the visual effects team at Industrial Light and Magic. There are sequences in Doctor Strange that unfold completely in the hands of the special effects crew. I don’t mean simply CGI, but conceptual undertakings that are vastly complicated and surprising. One scene in particular left me completely in awe of ILM’s achievement.
Historically this praise might have gone to the film’s director, Scott Derrickson, but it’s hard to imagine Derrickson having much to do with the true achievements of Doctor Strange. In fact, the VFX in Doctor Strange were so much better than the rest of the film that I can’t help but wonder why Marvel – Disney can’t find a better use for their money.
Take, for example, a scene in which Stephen Strange is unconscious and on a hospital gurney. Strange’s spirit exits his body and he awakens on the astral plane. Then the astral projection of the goon he was fighting also shows up in the hospital. The audience has just spent 45 minutes learning with Stephen about the vast range of mystical, magical powers and entities and relics that exist in the multi-verse, and now we have two characters inhabiting the purely magical world. What happens? Derrickson has these two astral projections fist fight. Yep. All that learning for an unimpressive fist fight between two astral projections. It looked cool, sure. But what a let-down.
This wasn’t only a problem in the technical work. I had fun with Doctor Strange, but almost immediately after the film’s conclusion, I wondered: Why was Rachel McAdams in this film? McAdams’ talent serves only as a foil to the cruel behavior of the old Stephen and the need to welcome back to the new one. Her role is unnecessary except as a function to demonstrate how Stephen changes. He used to be an abusive ass, but now he’s not. Yeah!
These responses encapsulates Doctor Strange. There is so much wizardry and talent at work in this film (Tilda Swinton! Chiwetl Ejiofor!), but it is all in the service of something much less satisfying. Another origin story for another franchise that will turn out movies about a sullen white man who must reckon with his new life, the loss of his old life, long for his old love, yadda yadda yadda.
With every new release of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I am having a harder time identifying what the bar for success should be. Don’t get me wrong, some Marvel films are much better than others. But as a company and storyworld, Marvel and Disney are not that interested in new things. New things are not how franchise entertainment works. New things are in fact anathema to franchise success, which follows a very simple formula: find a thing that works, repeat that thing. Does anyone think that Doctor Strange is going to be new? It’ll be different, somewhat, sure, but new?
I admit, I had hoped it would be. I had hoped that the horror director Derrickson could make something new. That the magical-fantasy world that Doctor Strange works in would provide a backdrop for a different vision from Marvel. And there’s some new imagery here, and some pleasantly weird characters. Some horror elements mixed in with it’s sci-fi that make it somewhat darker than most MCU picture.
But it would be misleading to claim there is anything new here. I don’t know why I hoped for such a thing; perhaps because the MCU’s success is creating the broadest model for 21st century Hollywood, and if that’s going to be the case, we should hope for something more.
Doctor Strange is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the eight individual franchise. Of those eight franchises, seven are about white men, and one is about all those white men working as a team. That might be a reductionist view but it’s also factual. There are plans for two films that will break the white male lock on the MCU, but both are still two years away.
By the time we get to Black Panther and Captain Marvel, let us hope that Marvel and Disney have found a way to breathe some life into a multi-franchise universe that produces effective, efficient re-hashes.
Doctor Strange is an accomplished piece of cinema, I’ll repeat that. But if we are honest with ourselves, and we should be, I think we can acknowledge this truth: the returns for audiences are diminishing with every new white man superhero franchise introduced, even if the box office returns are not.