Doctor Strange, the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, came out Friday. To be honest, I didn't originally intend to see it. I never followed the character's own comic book series. In fact, my only exposure to Stephen Strange has been in Marvel crossovers where he always shows up to great fanfare only to get Worfed within three panels.
"Oh no! It's an unknown mystical threat we can't deal with!"
"But look! It's Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme!"
"...And yep. He's got nothin'."
That's not to say that Doctor Strange is an inherently uninteresting or ineffective character. John C. Wright, Dragon of Science Fiction, is a well-known Doctor Strange super fan.
What it does say is that, in my not inconsiderable comic geek experience, the character is often handled poorly by lazy writers who bring him in just to establish the villain cred of unknown mystical bad guys by having said bad guys immediately confound him.
Another potential red flag was the movies widely publicized casting weirdness that even John disdained as blatant partisanship on the Tibet-China issue.
In light of all this, I was gonna skip this one until Daddy Warpig announced that we'd be reviewing Doctor Strange on Geek Gab. In service to you and the show, I bit the bullet and repaired to my local theater for a Friday matinee.
Where, just to be on the safe side, I paid for a different movie and snuck into Doctor Strange.
The verdictDoctor Strange was OK. The writers and directors discharged their duties better than I expected.
- Believable, workmanlike performances from the whole cast
- Sturdy magic system open to some clever manipulation, with more than a passing resemblance to the Workings from my own Soul Cycle.
- Well-written and well-photographed action. Avoided equating "action" with "violence" as the operation scenes contained more dramatic tension than most of the fights. I'm sold on a hypothetical prequel where Doctor Strange solves puzzling maladies without superpowers.
- Refreshingly mature and sufficiently convincing treatment of metaphysics and natural law theory. The sorcerers not only take spirituality seriously--as you'd expect--they have robust philosophical arguments for their position. This includes...
- Villains with good arguments. It's refreshing not to be saddled with the usual nihilists and megalomaniacs that comic book films usually resort to.
- Yet another origin story, specifically MCU Origin #3: Arrogant Genius Suffers Debilitating Injury Forcing Him to Embrace Selflessness and Master Latent Powers.
- While good enough for punk rock, the magic/ethical system could have used more fleshing out. What are the mechanical limits of magic? (Not knowing this reduced the dramatic tension of the wizard battles.) What happens if a sorcerer breaks the natural law?
- Related to the point above: we're told that magic has limits and breaking the rules always has consequences, but these are never shown. That much purely verbal exposition is inexcusable in the visual medium of film--especially a film with the kinds of dazzling special effects that Doctor Strange has on display.
- Similarly, and even worse, we're repeatedly told that the outcome of the main villain's scheme would be bad, yet only a hint of what "bad" means is shown, and not until the end. Effective dramatic tension building requires establishing the stakes by the end of act II; not the end of act III.
On the other hand, as someone who's not a Doctor Strange fanboy, I readily admit that I might've missed out on some lore from the comics that fills in the movie's mechanical and moral blanks.
For a more in-depth review conducted with gentlemen who may be more versed in Marvel's mystical arts than I, see the latest episode of Geek Gab below.
And don't forget to check out my award-winning Soul Cycle novels.
NB: if you're wondering how my MCU movie rankings factor in Doctor Strange, here you go.
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Iron Man 2
Captain America: The First Avenger
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Thor: The Dark World
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 3