Monday, November 7, 2016

Doctor Strange

Last night I and a handful of my AMST 1102: American Identities on Film students sat down to watch Doctor Strange. I had (mostly) taken care to avoid spoilers for this film, but I had seen one-sentence reviews from the Facebook brain trust and the most common sentiment seemed to be, "Good, paint-by-numbers superhero movie." The consensus was that Marvel has made so many superhero movies that they have got the formula pretty much down, and Doctor Strange was an unremarkable exercise in executing this formula.

Well, yes and no. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

First off, let me get one thing out of the way right now. Doctor Strange disappointed me. Only in one way. I was disappointed because the Eye of Agamotto -- so lovingly portrayed on screen (it doesn't especially bother me that it's been turned into the casing for the Time Gem, one of the Infinity Stones) -- did not float up off of Strange's chest and embed itself in his forehead to become his third eye. Because, come on, that would have been awesome. I suppose I'll live.

Now that my personal crying fit is over, let's talk about how Doctor Strange does or does not spool out the patented Mighty Marvel Method. Marvel's casting about for a replacement for Robert Downey Jr as the tentpole actor for the next wave of films was clearly on display. Strange and Stark have made "facial hair bro" jokes in the comics before, or at least Tony has while Stephen played the straight man, and for me as a fan of the comics, this was perhaps the least successful part of the film. I'm going to have a hard time seeing Stephen Strange as funny. But I'd better get used to it, because the Marvel films are marked by their sense of humor, and that appears to be part of the formula.

What Strange and Stark have more in common is their status as wealthy elite, and their self-centered nature. Strange's origin story made it clear that his selfishness manifested, more than anything else, in greed: Stephen would not help people who could not afford his fee. In Doctor Strange this has been altered to a desire for fame -- and this change is not done just for the hell of it, or because someone thought it would play better, but because it links in to the film's overall exploration of immortality, the reason people want it, and the things they're willing to do to get it. Strange, like Kaecilius, was afraid of death and wanted to live forever. Strange didn't begin in the land of symbol and metaphor, the land where magic lives, and in the mundane world the closest Stephen can get to immortality is fame. I get that, and I can see why they changed his motivation from greed.

Of course, the major change to Strange's origin story is that Kaecilius is the former pupil turned follower of Dormammu, instead of Mordo. From a screenwriting standpoint, this is done so that the film can finish Kaecilius off as an antagonist at the end of the picture, his actor never to be seen again. We can focus on Strange himself and use this film to set up Mordo as the antagonist in the sequel. We saw the same thing happening in -- of all films -- Green Lantern, in which Sinestro pretty much played the exact same role. Chiwetel Ejiotor is an excellent actor, and I can see why, once he is cast as Mordo, you would want to keep him around for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this does play into the Marvel Formula in which every hero is opposed by a bad guy who is basically identical to the hero in terms of powers. It breaks a little with the trope only in that the hero is not directly responsible for the bad guy; in this case, it's the Ancient One's willingness to break the rules which alienates Mordo and turns him against his fellow sorcerers. But I am not looking forward to a second movie in which Strange is opposed by a guy who has his same powers. That's a yawner.

And let's talk about the Ancient One, since this was the big point of disapproval by so many while the film was in development. It's not the gender-switch of the Ancient One which is relevant here -- Swindon is a great, hard working actress and she does a good job in the role, shifting from action scenes to tender moments. I really liked her last scene, again because it thwarted expectations. Everyone expects a dying character to look into the hero's eyes, say their final words, and then roll the head back and close the eyes. But the Ancient One vanished when we weren't even looking. It seems like a small way to break the formula, but I liked it nevertheless. (For the record, the best death scene in a Marvel film is the death of Dr. Erskine in the first Captain America film. Because it is silent. Tucci does not have to speak during it, because the last time we saw him -- talking with Steve at his bunk the night before the experiment -- he said what needed to be said. And so in his death scene all Tucci has to do is repeat the physical gesture he made then, and we hear the words again now. That is brilliant.)

But back to the racial issue of the Ancient One. Using a "Celtic" background for the character instead of Asian is a shame. My understanding, and I have not researched this, is that it was a move basically driven by the film's expected Chinese audience, and China's problematic relationship with Tibet. Well, I don't know about all that. But what I do know is that there're no shortage of Asian actors who could have played that part, and I don't see what the film really gained by making her vaguely British. I suppose the gang at Shamballa become more ethnically diverse, because we already have Wong to represent Asian-ness, but the move puts Wong underneath a Western sorcerer supreme and, besides, don't we have Stephen himself to fulfill the role of "ignorant white dude who is suddenly better at everything than the black and Asian dudes who have been here for years?" I'm not happy with the change. But, again, Swindon is great. So I guess if you are going to fuck with a good thing, may as well do it as well as you can.

What we really need to talk about, and the thing that distinguishes Doctor Strange from every Marvel film except, maybe, Guardians of the Galaxy, is its ending. This film's resolution to the central conflict throws out everything Marvel is doing not only in its own movies, but also (most of) its Netflix shows. The hero does not resolve the problem by fighting the bad guy.

This is a huge deal for me. This could have been a mediocre superhero movie and I would still have found it interesting for its ending. I suspect many people are going to see it and feel somewhat disappointed by the film, maybe even for reasons they can't articulate. It's going to seem anti-climactic. People may even call it boring. The source of all this is the way in which Stephen forces Dormammu to withdraw from Earth by trapping him in a time loop. It is a straight-up Dr Who ending, or the sort of thing you might see on Star Trek.

Which is no accident. Doctor Who has legions of fanatical followers, a majority of which are women. Benedict Cumberbatch has never played the Doctor, but is beloved by many of the same fans, who first met him on Sherlock and now follow everything he does. What distinguishes the Doctor from traditional male-oriented action heroes is that he doesn't carry a gun, doesn't believe in violence, and usually solves his problems by outsmarting the bad guy (who, admittedly, are often not hard to outsmart). When Strange landed in the Dark Dimension twenty times, only to say, "I'm here to bargain," he may as well have been walking straight out of the TARDIS.

And the Original Series episode of Star Trek, "The Alternative Factor", straight up ends with a guy voluntarily trapping himself in an eternal wrestling move with his own evil doppleganger from another dimension in order to save our world. It's Doctor Strange except Dormammu refuses to bargain and the Enterprise just blows the whole thing up.

Earlier I already mentioned that I am tired of Marvel heroes facing evil versions of themselves. I'm also tired of this when it is depicted on screen as two CGI models fighting. We saw this more in early Marvel films: Iron Man and the Hulk are especially guilty of this, but we saw it recently in Ant-Man too. I just don't see a lot of drama in CGI. On television, Daredevil and Luke Cage still resolve their problems with a big fight in the final episode and, let's be honest, its always been anticlimactic. Daredevil's fight with Fisk at the end of the first season of Daredevil is the worst fight in the series. Marvel has worked hard to make their climaxes more interesting -- look at Thor in The Dark World, with Mjolnir chasing Thor through the dimensions or Jessica Jones breaking Killgrave's neck. Guardians of the Galaxy is a Star Wars style CGI-fest until everyone crashes and we get the "Dance-off," which -- c'mon -- was brilliant.

But Doctor Strange has a better ending than all of those. (Well, except maybe Jessica Jones. Because watching Killgrave finally get justice was just immensely satisfying.) It is foreshadowed by the moment in which Stephen chastises Mordo for going straight to violence when "there must be another way." God in heaven, how long have we waited for a superhero to say that in a movie? Not since Richard Donner's Superman films have we had a hero committed to non-violence. And Strange is not as extreme as Christopher Reeve's Superman; he is willing to fight when he feels there's no other choice. But Stephen Strange actively seeks out that other choice, which is how he differs from Tony Stark, Thor, and Steve Rogers, from Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, or Luke Cage.

And I, for one, am glad to see that part of the formula get tossed out the window.

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