Lukewarm Takes #7 Doctor Strange
My wife nurses a strong, unshakeable conviction that superhero movies are all bad, dumb and also the same. Now, I’m not one of those pathetic adults who risk widespread public mockery—and deservedly so—by reading “comic books” exclusively created as a soothing literary brain balm for the feeble minds of very small children.
You’ll sooner see me soiling my diaper publicly, drinking from the milky teat of my mother’s breasts (whom, I shouldn’t have to remind you, died recently) or shaking a rattle while crying than broadcast my simpleton status to a cold and judgmental universe by toting around a copy of some comic book juvenilia with a title like The Fantastical Adventures of Robo-Man.
I’m no emotionally stunted, drooling, sub-literate, barely human “comic book reader” but I do enjoy comic book movies, particularly those of Marvel. I even belong to the Marvel Collector’s Club, and while they send a “comic book” in every box, I instantly burn it so that I’m not tempted to read a comic book that would instantly cause my IQ to plummet and my emotional age to shrink to five or six.
Marvel’s film division pretty much runs pop culture, and by extension the world, right now. I gotta say they’re mostly doing a pretty good job. I’m annoyed at times by the limitations of the Marvel house style, and by the relentless synergy of every movie needing to further fuel the endless fire that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but mostly I enjoy Marvel movies. Some Marvel movies, like Guardians of the Galaxy, I legitimately love.
Yet even I, a casual comic book movie fan, have to wearily concede that while my wife’s objections to superhero movies are, if reductive and unfair, then also not entirely wrong or even particularly inaccurate. I convinced my wife to see Ant-Man by teasing that, dreamy and talented Paul Rudd, whom she loves, as all good people do, is the star and that he co-wrote the script with Adam McKay, the writer-director of movies like Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, and while I thought it was perfectly okay and overwhelmingly passable, I couldn’t really say that it didn’t feel overwhelmingly like every other superhero movie ever made.
Even the superhero movies that are supposed to represent a bold, audacious break from the form end up feeling awfully familiar. Deadpool, for example, was advertised as outrageous and in your face, a profane and original deconstruction of the genre but when I finally got around to seeing it for this column, it felt a whole lot like a whole bunch of other superhero movies, only with 15 percent more sass and attitude.
To be fair, Logan lived up to the hype and gave the ubiquitous genre a much-needed infusion of bleak film noir urgency but more often superhero movies end up feeling like the ragingly just fine Doctor Strange.
One of the many ways Doctor Strange is very much like damn near every other Marvel movie is with its ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo. I know his bit parts are supposed to be fun little treats for fans but the man is nearly dead and I worry that having to slide inside the psyches of so many different characters, from The Amazing Spider-Man 2's "Graduation Guest" to the "Bus Passenger" he plays here is taking a terrible toll on the man and his fading energy.
Look, we are wasting way too many of Lee's final moments on these dumb cameos. So I'm proposing that Marvel stop wasting the man's time and have him play "Old Man Jacking It In A Porno Booth" in the next 27 Marvel movies. They can film them all in one day and have Lee pantomime jerking it in a porno booth while saying dialogue applicable to an astonishing array of potential Marvel movies, from "Go and get 'em, Gay Cyber-Spider-Man! Defeat Robo-Nixon with the power of dance!" to "You can do it Lesbian Avengers! You can defeat White Black Panther and his Alt-Right Robot Brigade! Do it for President Barron Trump!" This way Lee can continue to appear in Marvel movies for decades after his death.
For reasons that go above and beyond the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, Doctor Strange feels awfully familiar. Yet on paper at least, the film has extraordinary potential. The comic book and character was a product of the psychedelic, mystical, mythical Marvel of the 1960s and 1970s, when many of the company’s most talented writers and artists tuned in, dropped out, added marijuana and LSD to their daily diets and produced trippy, stoner-friendly work that reflected their experiments in sensory derangement and newly psychedelic sense of themselves and their place in the universe.
Doctor Strange is Marvel on drugs and while the film doesn’t shy away from its psychedelic aspects, it also does not fully embrace them. This is a potential tentpole blockbuster with a specific role to play within a larger, insanely lucrative mythology, not a head film. This is not Jodorowsky or David Lynch’s Doctor Strange. It’s a commercial movie that’s occasionally trippy, not the psyche-scrambling mind-fuck leading me straight into the radiant center of God-consciousness I had hoped for.
Joaquin Phoenix was offered the role of Doctor Strange and I wonder if my slightly underwhelmed response to the film came from disappointment that it would not star one of my favorite actors in a role perfect for his singular combination of earthy, method-actor intensity and spooky otherworldliness.
Phoenix has that divine spark of madness a role like this calls for and while Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly adequate in the lead role he feels unmistakably like a second or third choice. That’s true of damn near every movie Cumberbatch is in. He always feels like a compromise and a concession, like the dude they always end up approaching following a long string of rejections.
Cumberbatch brings a sardonic arrogance to the role of Dr. Stephen Strange, an accomplished neurosurgeon who looks down on the rest of humanity as hopelessly inferior. As a doctor, Strange doesn’t need superpowers or an origin story to feel superhuman and the Doctor part of the film’s title ends up being nearly as important as the half alluding both to the good doctor’s last name and the unusual nature of his adventures. Doctor Strange is a comic book about a doctor, and that is nearly as important as its mysticism.
The film opens with Strange at the top of his field, with the ego and bank account that goes with reaching such stratospheric professional heights. But a man that arrogant is heading for a fall, and after a nearly fatal car crash leaves him unable to return to his old line of work he goes searching for answers. It’s a journey for knowledge and self-understanding that leads him to the Far East and a mysterious figure known as Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
Before Doctor Strange came out, there was a fair amount of controversy over the film’s predictable decision to cast a white actor as the Ancient One, a character that is a Tibetan man in the comic books. Swinton is appropriately ethereal in the role, and in her final big conversation with Doctor Strange, she brings a real sense of loss and time and perspective to the part, but does she do anything that couldn’t be done as well, or better, by an Asian actor? Probably not.
Though Doctor Strange is a slightly different kind of superhero movie, a more dank variation on the form, it still has an awful lot of exposition and world-building and mythologizing to get through. So Cumberbatch spends much of the film being given information about the true nature of reality and the cosmos both by the Ancient One and by Mordo, a fellow student of the mythical arts played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Cumberbatch and Ejiofor costarred in 12 Years A Slave and I can only imagine the fun they must have had on the set of Doctor Strange reminiscing about all the outrageous pranks they’d play on each other while shooting the earlier film. I hear that Ejiofor became particularly notorious for his skillful deployment of whoopee cushions to undercut tension.
Doctor Strange exists in a world beyond our imagining, a world as vast and all-encompassing as the human imagination. It exists in our world but also in a mirror world and features astral projection, spells and all manner of freaky shit. That’s what I like about Doctor Strange. There are moments scattered throughout when it throws off the shackles of having to do all of the things superhero movies have to do and gives itself over to something approaching pure abstraction.
The movie’s most memorable moments are also its druggiest. For example, early in his evolution into a super-human sorcerer supreme, Doctor Strange tests his astonishing, trippy new power by making an apple wither and come back to life, seemingly of its own accord. It’s an impressive visual but I would have respected the film more if its protagonist then used his magical sorcerer powers to transform the apple into a marijuana pipe, and then winked big at the camera and smoked a fat-ass nug of righteous Sativa and was all, “They should Call Me Doctor Blaze cause of the way I get blazed 24/7 on the kindest of kind bud. 4/20 bro, am I right? ” and then blew a 3-D pot ring at the screen.
A Doctor Strange movie with a sequence like this would gross an additional fifty million world-wide, easy. More importantly, it would instantly grant Benedict Cumberbatch and everyone involved with the film “legendary status” within the stoner community. Cumberbatch would have been able to swagger into any weed dispensary in the world, winked at the clerk and asked ,"Yo, you got that Eye of Agamotto killer bud? Hook a sorcerer up” and he would walk out of that dispensary loaded down with pounds upon pounds of complementary cheeba.
Doctor Strange is rooted in Eastern religion, Eastern mysticism and Eastern martial artistry so of course it pits not just an English actor, but an actor with arguably the single most British name in existence, Benedict Cumberbatch, against Mads Mikkelsen’s bad guy Kaecilius. Cumberbatch actually did the voice and performed the motion capture for the movie’s big villain, Dormammu. Cumberbatch didn’t have to do double duty, of course. He probably was just worried that a minority actor might take the job.
Cumberbatch might have wanted to let another actor tackle the role, because this is yet another Marvel movie where the bad guy feels like an afterthought. Doctor Strange has elements of Harry Potter and Ghostbusters in its juxtaposition of a fantastical alternate world of wizards and monsters and other dimensions with our banal little universe. The movie has flashes of dry, very British wit, but for the most part it takes itself very seriously and barely affords Ejiofor more than a moment or two of levity.
Here’s the thing: Doctor Strange’s premise gives it unlimited license to dream up, and then realize, all manner of freaky-ass shit. That’s what I wanted from Doctor Strange: freaky-ass shit. That’s what the film could bring to the Marvel universe that it desperately needs. And while there is, in fact, some freaky-ass shit in Doctor Strange that at times suggests a massive, blockbuster version of an interactive M.C Esher painting, there simply is not enough freaky-ass shit in Doctor Strange.
The movie feels more like an acid trip than any Marvel movie so far, but it still does not feel enough like an acid trip for my tastes. That might be because the movie had an awful lot of heavy lifting to do in terms of introducing the character to an audience that overwhelmingly has no idea who he is or what he can do, but it is regrettable.
Thankfully, now that this world of Doctor Strange has been established, the film’s sequel will hopefully have the freedom to achieve what should be the franchise’s only goal: blowing the minds of squares with some of the most awesomely, insanely fucked-up shit ever committed to the big screen.
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