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November 10, 2016

Doctor Strange: A Beard’s Origin Story (Part 1)

Doctor Strange makes me ask a lot of questions, but that’s not a fault of the movie.  I suspect that I know more about him than the average Joe, if only because I played a couple of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games way back when.  That was basically my first real exposure to the doctor, and I was entranced by his antics -- like teleporting all over the place after spinning like Wonder Woman on a turntable, or transforming enemies into highly-destructible boxes (with the added, if not game-breaking effect, of dishing out extra health).  In the time since, I’ve tried to learn more about him; my knowledge is still surface-level, but I feel like I’ve been rewarded for my efforts.

Doctor Strange is a cool character.  I’ve thought that for a while now -- and there was a time in my life when I would ask with wide, glittering eyes “When are we getting a Doctor Strange movie?”  While I wouldn’t say I’ve dreamed of this moment, I’ve been excited to see what Marvel Studios can put out.  By extension, there are questions that I had (and still have) about the movie.  Chief among them: how do you bring Doctor Strange onto the big screen?  And, you know, do a good job?

I’m not here to tell you if the movie’s good or bad.  I’m here to answer as many questions as possible in the context of what I’ve seen.  Sort out what works, what doesn’t work, and why.  If you’re interested, come along with me on this journey.  If not?  I don’t know.  Watch a Doctor Strange combo video.  Maybe you’ll pick up some new tech.

By the hoary hosts of SPOILERS! 
Side note: anyone looking forward to seeing the Seven Rings of Raggadorr is out of luck.  Sorry if that’s a deal-breaker, but as a consolation prize?  ASTRAL MAGIC CONFIRMED.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that if you’re reading this post, you’ve already seen the movie and/or know what it entails.  If you haven’t seen it?  1) You clearly have a high tolerance for spoilers.  2) You probably need a basic plot summary and opinion on whether it’s good -- in which case, I shall provide.  3) You might have suffered a head injury that distorts every last facet of your judgment ability.

This seems like a lot of cloak-and-dagger nonsense to go through for a movie.  And it’s a Marvel movie, no less.  You know what you’re getting by now: superheroes, action, jokes, world-building, setup for the future, post-credits scenes, etc.  For some people, the “formula” has become too much to bear.  And even though I am a fan -- of this movie, and the MCU at large -- anyone who has a problem or complaint has legitimate reasons behind them.  Honestly, that’s kind of a good thing.  If people are willing to take the Marvel movies to task, then they’re thinking critically and asking for more from those in power.  If it keeps up, then I’d wager that someday we’ll get it on a regular basis.

So while I can’t speak for everyone everywhere, I can still speak for myself.  And like I said before, I’m in no position to declare Doctor Strange as the best Marvel movie to date (or ever).  What I can say, and with a fair bit of confidence, is that it’s certainly the most dramatic movie so far.  It pretty much has to be; the story of Stephen Strange is one full of pain and suffering, and a life that would be absolutely ruined if it happened in the real world.  There’s real drama there, and it’s at the forefront for a decent-sized chunk of the movie.

Even if that’s the case, there’s an issue that needed to be sorted out.  It’s actually one of the questions I had in mind for this movie.  See, the Strange we’re given in the movie is someone who’s at the top of the world in his field.  He’s brilliant, with the fame, wealth, and material goods to show for it.  He has the skills to perform feats that would otherwise be impossible -- and as a result, he could do the backstroke in a pool of his own smugness.  Tragedy strikes thanks to a problem of his own creation, and in order to save his life he has to resort to extreme measures.  Said measures end up thrusting him onto the path of super heroics, albeit with some serious growing pains along the way.  Many jokes will be fired off while in transit.

Does any of that sound familiar to you?

There were several points throughout the movie where I thought “Isn’t he just Iron Man?”  It’s not hard to make comparisons, at least on the surface.  Maybe it’s just a sign of how well-tread the movies’ sense of humor has become, but there were multiple times where I got the sense that I was looking at Tony Stark 2.0 instead of a famed neurosurgeon.  That’s a problem, and in more ways than one.  Think about it: we’ve not only had a Tony Stark for years now -- he helped jumpstart the MCU, after all -- but we’ve also seen him change as a character.  Even if we don’t know the full effects of Captain America: Civil War, it’s safe to say that he’s not the same reckless joker that he was before the turn of the decade. 

If we go solely by the worst-case scenario, adding in Doctor Strange means running back the progress made on that front -- jamming in a replacement for the snark and smugness that viewers have gotten used to.  It’s true that the style here is an effective one, but it’s not a perfect fit for every instance or every movie or every character.  So when the doctor lapses into being the armored Avenger, there are times when it comes off as jarring and tonally inconsistent -- and ends up creating some of the weaker moments in the movie.  To be fair, it’s not as if all the blame falls to Strange and his Tony Stark impression, but that makes the movie at large even guiltier.  I appreciate the laughs they’re aiming for by having Strange’s cape wipe away his tears for him; I just didn’t need them at that exact moment, at the height of a very emotional and somber moment.  Sure, it’s cathartic and releases tension, but…really?  Right there?  Really?

In hindsight, there were times when I wanted to grab the movie (or the physical embodiment of it, at least) by the shoulders, shake it ferociously, and shout “Don’t be somebody else.  You be you, movie.  You be you.”  It’s kind of an empty gesture; even though I make it sound like a fatal error, there’s less Doctor Strange = Iron Man and more Doctor Strange = Doctor Strange.  Even though there are similarities, there’s more than enough material here to separate the two Marvel heroes.

Like I said last time, there’s a lot of credit to be laid at the feet of Benedict Cumberbatch.  There haven’t been a lot of Marvel heroes (if any) that have made the show of suffering such a high priority, but both this character and this actor have gone a long way towards putting that pain on the big screen.  I feel as if I said this about Civil War, but it certainly applies here: there are plenty of moments where the movie is legitimately hard to watch.  I’d bet that people see these movies to have a good time, but it seems like these days, Marvel Studios is out to give everyone tickets to the Feels Express.

So here’s the clincher.  When all’s said and done with his origin story, Tony Stark gets to go back to being Tony Stark, albeit as a changed man.  When all’s said and done with Stephen Strange’s origin story, he loses everything.

When he’s out of his suit, Mr. Stark is immensely wealthy, a powerhouse in the public eye, inundated with resources, a pioneer in his field…the list goes on and on.  He may still have a lot of issues that need sorting out, but even with the Sokovia Accords rooted in place, he can still rest easy on a bed made out of money every night.  Hell, he doesn’t even need an Arc Reactor in his chest to keep him alive anymore (which was half of the point of becoming Iron Man).  The consequences of his actions are still there, but they’ve been minimized.  He’s had time to resolve a lot of his issues -- both in terms of sequels and in his movie of origin.

Compare that to Mr. Strange.  Even though he still has his life after a potentially-fatal accident, he doesn’t have the means to fix it.  His hands are ruined, after all, so he’s got no choice but to entrust his well-being to others -- and those very people fail him again and again.  He spends every penny he’s got, to the point where he makes a visit to Nepal with no plan on how he’ll get back to the States.  He ends up walling off everyone, including his version of Pepper Potts (the gap between them narrows by movie’s end, but it doesn’t look like they’re back together in any sense of the word). 

Critically, Strange doesn’t go back to being a neurosurgeon.  He’s the new Sorcerer Supreme thanks to The Ancient One biting it in a kung fu wizard battle (don’t you just hate it when that happens?), so now he’s got a new job.  Now he’s got a new life -- and with his hands still mangled before the credits roll, it looks like he’s made his choice.  He hasn’t forgotten who he was -- he still keeps a watch that broke in a street fight, no doubt as a memento of his lady friend Christine Palmer -- but he has a deeper understanding of how big the world really is.  Even if he can save lives as a famous neurosurgeon, he can save entire realities as Doctor Strange.  And he kind of does in his movie of origin, but I’ll get to that.

The important thing is that I 100% buy into the changes and consequences Strange goes through over a two-hour span.  He starts off as a cocky bastard, but it’s not long before he transitions into a broken man.  He goes from clean-shaven to progressively more scraggly (and hairy) prior to becoming a sorcerer; with the use of his hands limited, he can’t bring himself to shave off his depression beard unless he wants to slice out a chunk of his face.  And it IS a depression beard, because seeing him go through a rejection by a newly-healthy patient he refused to help, endure a Nepalese beatdown, and slump despondently against the sealed door of his final hope is some harrowing stuff.  Even the biggest asshole in the universe doesn’t deserve half of what Strange does.

On top of all that?  Strange broke the Hippocratic Oath.

It’s a Marvel movie, so of course some bodies are going to get dropped.  The guys who bite it in this movie aren’t even close to innocent; movies past have had the heroes take out aliens, robots, monsters and various villains without any moral complications or lost sleep, and I’d say that “cabal of evil wizards” doesn’t quite qualify as a band of Good Samaritans.  With that said, they’re still people with lives -- and even if magic helped them break the natural laws of the world (i.e. furthering their goal of eternal life), Strange still came at them with the intent to kill.  He effectively does kill them, given that he dooms one to wander around in the desert with no hope of return, and blows up the astral projection of another -- itself after leaving him for dead in an ancient sanctum’s hallway.

That raised a red flag immediately.  As soon as Strange used some teleportation shenanigans to strand an evil wizard in the desert, I thought “Okay, so you just killed a person.  Wait -- shit, does that mean that he just broke the Oath?  I hope this movie addresses that.”  And to my shock, it did.  Strange references the Oath directly as soon as he has a few quiet moments to catch his breath, and he’s legitimately horrified over what he’s done.  Yeah, it was arguably in self-defense, but it doesn’t change the fact that he took a life -- and if the other wizards keep forcing him to be a mystic guardian, then it’s probably the first death out of many that he’ll cause.  It’s no surprise that he wants to quit right there -- and calls out the other guardians for making him play hero against his will -- but he gets in deeper once The Ancient One bites it and forces his hand.

You know, I feel like an alternate title for this movie could’ve been Stephen Strange and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  Except the “day” goes on long enough for him to grow a depression beard (and beyond).

All of that helps make Doctor Strange an exciting character to watch.  Not to revel in the schadenfreude, but it’s not often when you get to see a character’s struggle so sharply presented and punctuated on the big screen.  There’s a part of me that thinks that the movie could’ve axed the expected fights with the baddies and rapid-fire witticisms, and as the day goes by that part gets a little bit bigger.  Kaecilius (finally remembered his name!) has been routed alongside his cultist crew, and I doubt we’ll ever see them again.  Even if we do, there’s been so much effort put into making Strange stand out that -- as usual -- the villains feel comparatively marginalized.  That’s a problem, and it’s one that needs to be sorted out sooner rather than later.

Loki’s popularity should’ve been a big hint to the moviemakers, a sign of what they should do and where they should go.  Baron Zemo managed to deliver something different, and that’s 100% appreciable (as are the efforts of Alexander Pierce).  But one member of the rogues’ gallery after another has gotten the boot, and that’s a trend that needs reversing -- a trend that should’ve been addressed years ago.  The Marvel movies shine because their main characters are given the care and spirit needed to entertain fans.  Imagine how much more they’d shine if the villains had the same care.  Strange’s struggles show just how much you can get from a story when its lead is inundated with adversity, and a good set of villains can bring that in an instant.  Rivals, foils, whatever you want to call them -- they can work like gangbusters.  So far, they haven’t been for Marvel Studios.

Even if all of that is true (and your mileage may vary), I’d still argue that there’s more going on under the surface of Doctor Strange.  I was under the impression that this movie would sidestep the bigger ideas of the MCU canon, particularly those set up by Civil War.  Since Strange is still an outsider -- and only just got his powers -- he doesn’t have a stake in the Sokovia Accords issue, which means his movie at large would theoretically sidestep some crucial themes.  But when you think about it, there might be more there than most would expect.  There was certainly more than I expected, at least.

I think the main idea here is how to use one’s powers for the greater good.  Strange starts out as a doctor whose surgical prowess can save otherwise-doomed patients.  Rather than letting them go gentle into that good night, he prolongs their lives through the power of science -- with skills and technology people from thousands or even hundreds of years ago would’ve never thought possible.  In hindsight, it does beg the question of how much Strange truly cared about saving lives (irrespective of “rejecting the natural cycle of life and death”) when at the outset he made it sound like he only saved patients whose surgeries could garner glory/pose a challenge.  Still, given that he’s already set up as a jerkass, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The important thing is that as an outsider, Strange has the mindset and perspective needed to ask questions that those well-versed in the mystic arts would just shrug off.  There’s a sense of pragmatism to him that lets him see a direct route to a solution, with only a minor concern for consequences as long as things work in his favor.  To wit: he’s got no problems using the Eye of Agamotto to screw with the flow of time, even though he’s fiercely scolded for it by magic veterans like Mordo.  There are certain things you’re just not supposed to touch or do in the magical world, at least in the eyes of those well-versed in it.  But Strange is of a different opinion: “Why not?”

It makes sense, I suppose.  If you have the power to save someone -- immediately, conclusively, or whatever -- then why not jump on it?  Why get tangled up in rules, procedures, and mores when you can nip a problem in the bud?  The immediate answer is that that’s the same line of reasoning Kaecilius has; he’s out to use the Dark Dimension -- and with it, the power of the Dread Lord Dormammu -- to tap into eternal life, albeit via union with an all-powerful embodiment of chaos.  Those are some freakin’ immediate consequences to deal with, and I don’t blame Mordo for sweating over the prospects.

That doesn’t stop Strange from at least hearing Kaecilius out.  And that doesn’t stop The Ancient One from preemptively tapping into that forbidden power for her own purposes.

The truth is that The Ancient One used Dormammu and the Dark Dimension to extend her life far longer than it had any right to go.  How long?  Too long, ultimately.  The reveal is enough to basically shatter Mordo’s mind, since A) it’s a perversion of the natural laws of the world, and B) The Ancient One herself made her disciples (Mordo included) swear off using such dark power for obvious reasons.  The irony of the situation is that there were both good and bad takeaways from her unholy dabbling.  On one hand, her long life is what allowed her to become a mentor and savior to Strange, which set the stage for the world’s salvation.  On the other hand, her defiance of natural law is what inspired Kaecilius (a former student of hers in turn) to do the same -- and put the world in danger in the first place.

I can see her side of the argument, though.  It’s pretty safe to assume that The Ancient One isn’t a malevolent figure by any stretch of the imagination, so I doubt she used her powers to rob banks or steal candy from babies.  What did she do with all that extra time?  Presumably, she bettered herself, honed her art, and passed vital teachings onto others (like Mordo and Strange).  If she gave herself more time on the clock, then she likely made the world a better place for generations.  That seems like a pretty good use of forbidden magic if you ask me.  Then again, I’ve always been a few life choices away from becoming a dogma-obsessed Knight Templar, so maybe I’m a little biased.

The important thing is that there are multiple sides to the argument, and it’s an argument centered on the proper use of powers.  To be lawful or good, basically; do you use the means available to you to serve the greater good, even if the circumstances are less than ideal?  Or do you move within the bounds of the rules, maximizing the ability to act within reason but potentially minimizing the amount of help you can offer?  The Ancient One already made her choice, and her death at the hands of Kaecilius (and his goons via a sneaky stab attack) means that she can’t guide anyone anymore.  It’s up to Strange, Mordo, and the other mystics to figure out where they stand.

I’ll be the first to admit that the situation isn’t a complete one-to-one comparison of Civil War, but there’s enough to suggest that the film crew had it on their minds.  Strange is basically Captain America Junior, and wants to solve problems with as few limits as possible (though unlike Cap, he’s willing to back down when it’s plainly obvious that he might do grievous harm).  That would make Mordo Iron Man Junior, only in a more extreme variant. 

Even the armored Avenger was willing to bend the rules to shift things in his favor; while Mordo does ultimately become an accomplice to Strange’s rule-breaking, he’s not happy about it in the slightest.  He believes in the natural order of the multiverse and the magic that weaves through it; given that Strange nearly shatters space-time by fumbling with the Eye of Agamotto, he has every reason to uphold the rules.  Of course, the problem then is that he becomes an extremist -- inflexible, and incapable of seeing the possibilities that Strange (and The Ancient One, by proxy) sees by default.

I’m sure that Strange’s shenanigans won’t have any negative consequences in the future.  Well, unless you sat through the credits like you should have.

You know, I keep harping on Kaecilius being a weak villain, but that’s not an entirely fair assessment.  He’s fine when you get down to it; he’s a legitimate threat, he has an air of sophistication about him, and the fact that he seemingly drew the movie’s hero to the dark side (or at least made a good case for infinite evil power for a couple of minutes) is worth at least a few points on the scoreboard.  I think my problem is that Mordo might’ve made for a much better villain -- partly because he’d be a villain with a damn good point. 

He’s already a good foil to Strange (which to be fair is true of Kaecilius as well), so it’s only a matter of giving him a chance to go up against the fresh upstart whose mere presence flipped Mordo’s world upside down.  And who knows?  Maybe instead of the villain being handily defeated in his movie of origin, a rivalry between Strange and Mordo could persist across several movies -- starting with this one, with Mordo limping off after an inconclusive defeat.

On the other hand, I guess that if Marvel Studios intentionally tried to draw parallels to Civil War, it’d be a bit too on-the-nose to have that struggle rehashed between Strange and Mordo.  And while I wish that we didn’t have to wait to see the full fallout between these two characters, it’s nice to know that this strained relationship won’t be forgotten.  Beyond that?  The major selling point of Doctor Strange is, well, Doctor Strange.  I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth for watching, and even if I don’t know the ins and outs of the character, I’m more than satisfied.  I hope that others are, too.

But there’s more I can say about the movie.  Because you see, I have a very important question -- one that could make or break the MCU from this moment on.

Is Doctor Strange a Magikarp?

My answer is yes.  And I’ll explain why…next time.

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