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November 14, 2016

Doctor Strange: A Beard’s Origin Story (Part 2)

Comic fans, I have a question: who is the most powerful superhero in Marvel Comics canon?

I wouldn’t know, because I’ve only got a handful of comics.  My gut instinct is to go with one of three choices, though.  First off: the Hulk, because the madder he gets the stronger he gets.  By that logic, I’m under the impression that his power level (such as it is) reaches something very close to infinity.  Failing that?  I’d guess Jean Grey, since she’s got the power of Phoenix/Dark Phoenix inside her, and years of Marvel 3 dominance suggest she’s one to be feared.  Failing that?  Doctor Strange.  If his power is to cast spells, then in the hands of a loose cannon writer with nothing to lose, all Strange would have to do is read up a bit to find just the right spell to solve the problem at hand.  Since his stories have (to my knowledge) pitted him against outer-dimensional super-beings, I’d say that that’s kind of a necessity.

So that poses a unique challenge for Marvel Studios.  How do you bring a character whose power is, theoretically, all of the powers into the MCU?  True, it’s not as if he starts out as a mystic god-slayer in his big debut (it is an originstory, after all), but since the execs are playing the long game on multiple fronts, there’s a possibility that Doctor Strange will be dramatically more powerful in his next appearance.  How do you balance future movies around that?  How do you balance this movie around that?

Time will tell what the future holds.  But for now?  I’d argue that the strongest Marvel hero is actually the weakest Marvel hero -- and the movie’s better for it.

Mystic Sword!  Bolts of Balthakk!  Spell of Vishanti!  SPOILERS OF THE FALTINE!
You know, one day soon I’m going to run out of ways to reference Marvel 3.  Today’s not that day, especially since one player managed to score a big win with a Doctor Strange/Phoenix Wright/Captain America team.  That’s my (theoretical and barely-explored) team, damn it!

Not to help push the discussion of these movies into schoolyard shouting matches over “who would win in a fight”, but it’s interesting to start thinking about the power dynamics in the Marvel movies.  Thanos is coming up pretty fast, after all, so he’s got to be something very close to the final boss of the MCU.  Who has the best shot at taking him out?  Probably the person who snatches up all of the Infinity Stones at once for one final, climactic attack.  If Vision has one of the stones implanted into his head, then he’s probably going to be the one to do it -- or the one to save the universe in a sacrificial swan dive.

Either way, the MCU has some strong heroes on its side.  Or, if they’re not strong in terms of sheer numbers (or power levels, if you want to go there), then they have tricks to help them succeed.  So again, Vision is probably up there on the proverbial tier list.  Hulk and Thor are below him for obvious reasons -- albeit in no particular order.  Then you’ve got Scarlet Witch, because magic, and/or powers she’s had time to hone for a good while.  Spidey, Cap, and Bucky are below her because they’re empowered individuals who don’t need extra gear to tap their abilities.  By that logic, Iron Man, War Machine, and Ant-Man trail behind them.  That, of course, puts Black Widow, Falcon, and Hawkeye near the bottom.  Until we see the full extent of Black Panther’s nature and powers, he’s in a strange place (though my gut puts him in the Spidey-tier, at least).  But to be clear, it’s less about raw numbers and more about the application of their abilities.

So in terms of the sheer number of abilities Strange might have in the future, he’s theoretically the strongest.  Right now, though, he’s the weakest.  That’s not a death knell for his character, though.  It just makes him the Magikarp of the MCU -- and we all know what Magikarp turns into.

I compared Doctor Strange to Iron Man in the last post, so let’s keep the comparisons going.  At the outset, neither of them are skilled hand-to-hand fighters; the most grappling Tony Stark had done up to that point was in the bedroom, and the first time we see Stephen Strange throw a punch, it ends with him getting battered on the streets of Nepal.  Stark compensates for his weakness by building an early version of the Iron Man suit, and then progressively iterates on them until he becomes the armored Avenger we know and love.  By the end of the first movie, he’s able to soundly defeat the Iron Monger through a combination of superior tech and a better understanding of that tech.

In comparison, Strange is completely at the mercy of everyone and everything around him -- unable to seize control of his condition, or his destiny at large.  That’s kind of the whole point, given that The Ancient One tells him that he needs to give up control and surrender; go with the flow, as they say.  It’s a lesson that only a near-death experience manages to teach him, as they often do.  Even so, he still struggles immensely to gain control of his blossoming powers.  He’s falling behind well before his impromptu trip to Mount Everest, unable to generate much more than some wimpy sparks while his peers are drawing portals to other worlds with some moves that wouldn’t be out of place in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Seriously.  Just slap an arrow on her head and she's all set.

Further, Strange gets a raw deal out of the whole mystic guardian role.  He gets a handle on teleportation, but can only do so if he has an easily-stolen trinket called a Sling Ring.  He can conjure magical weapons to fight and defend himself, but A) they can fizzle out if he’s not careful, and B) it’s still more than possible to break through whatever shield he generates.  He doesn’t have the practice needed to kung fu fight his foes, to the point where a living cape has to brawl on his behalf.  He doesn’t have the natural strength or endurance of other Marvel heroes, so once he gets stabbed -- and he does -- he pretty much has to call a time out and scramble into an operating room.

Strange only has two things going for him in this movie, and one of them is a passive boon.  He’s good at studying and taking in new information -- to the point where he can basically analyze and memorize anything he reads -- but that’s a tool for preparation, not keeping an evil wizard from kicking him in the ribs.  The other thing he has is the Eye of Agamotto, which turns him into a JoJo character lets him reverse, progress through, or generally alter time as needed.  That sounds like a hell of a story-breaking power, but given that guys like Mordo and Wong basically shout DON’T FUCKIN’ TOUCH THAT THING, it’s probably only going to be something used in dire circumstances.  And given that it contains one of the Infinity Stones, it’s not as if he’ll be able to use it if/when Thanos fills up the slots of the Infinity Gauntlet.

To be clear, it’s not as if Strange playing the underdog makes him or his movie worse.  If anything, they help make it better.  As much as I love Captain America, he goes from zero to hero in his movie of origin and never looks back.  That’s kind of the point of that movie (considering that he’s a super soldier who gets benched and acts as a marketing tool), but knowing that there’s a Marvel hero that has to claw his way up to basic crime-fighting competence is definitely a treat.  Not something you see every day -- well, except maybe for Ant-Man, but I haven’t seen that one yet.  Should probably put it on the to-do list.

What the Marvel movies need to win over the (entirely justified) naysayers is variability.  That’s going to be harder and harder to come by whenever it’s time to introduce a new hero -- who often needs a new origin story -- but it’s not impossible.  And what’s on display here shows that there’s variability, even within the limits of the much-touted formula.  Even though I said in the last post that I wish there was less fighting (or for the fighting to be axed entirely), it’s not as if there’s wall-to-wall action.  That’s because Strange isn’t a wall-to-wall fighter.  He’s a thinker.  He’s a man of science.  The one time he does throw a punch, it leads to him getting his ass kicked.

Should’ve used Splash, buddy.

Pound for pound, I’d wager that there’s less fighting in Doctor Strange then there is in other Marvel movies.  Is there a part of me that thinks even this much is too much?  In the context of this movie and its affect, yes.  But what’s here is still plenty entertaining to watch.  In the first five minutes (if that), The Ancient One goes to town on some of Kaecilius’ cronies, and it’s such a delight to watch that pretty much every rational thought I had was replaced by “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!  That’s the hypest thing ever!”  I thought that Strange would reach that level by movie’s end, but I thought wrong.  And honestly, I’m glad I did.

The fact that Strange can’t hang with even a couple of cronies -- guys that Cap or Iron Man could dispatch without a thought, magic or no -- is critical.  There’s tension as well as entertainment to be had from seeing our hero face overwhelming odds, and situations that other superheroes (and audiences at large) would take for granted.  He can’t just hit them with a Level 1 Hyper Combo and move on with his life.  He has to outmaneuver them.  Outsmart them.  Outplay them.  In a sense, the only way for a fledgling student thrown into the deep end to survive is to follow three ever-so-noble principles: lie, cheat, and steal.

And that’s exactly how he ends up executing the biggest con in the MCU ever.  That is, he’s able to bring a cosmic being to his knees by breaking -- and temporarily remaking -- the rules.

I actually didn’t know that Dormammu would be in this movie, and was resigned to the fact that the Marvel 3 menace wouldn’t deign us with an appearance of his big flaming head.  Of course, I’d forgotten that the Dread Lord has had multiple looks over the years -- and this time around, he showed up as a giant space-face.  Well, that’s primarily what we see of him; he’s still got a body, but his eye alone is probably as big as a football field.  So as a reminder, the final battle pits a being of near-incomprehensible form and power, someone with an incalculable number of ways to kill a mere mortal, against -- drumroll please -- a handicapped ex-surgeon who references pop music and almost died because he couldn’t tear his eyes away from his phone despite driving on Dead Man’s Curve in the rain.

The only way Strange could’ve won was for him to cheat.  And cheat he does; by combining the Eye of Agamotto with the lawlessness of the Dark Dimension, he’s able to trap Dormammu in an infinite, near-inescapable time loop.  Each loop ends with Strange being killed on the spot, and each loop begins with Strange floating onto the scene while saying “Dormammu!  I’ve come to bargain!”  How many times did he have to die to wear down and annoy the baddie into submission?  We may never know.  But the important thing is that it worked, in-universe and out of it.  The big guy agrees to take his dimension and his cronies away from Earth forever, and we in the audience got to see the weakest Marvel hero defeat the strongest Marvel villain without throwing a single punch.  I hope I don’t have to explain how cool that is.

If I had to raise a complaint, it’s that I’d have liked to see a little bit more of Dormammu before Strange’s con job.  Just a little bit more.  Granted there’s a strong possibility that he’ll return (or maybe he’ll fuel Mordo’s power in the next movie, whether the wizard taps him intentionally or not), but there’s also a strong possibility that he’ll keep his word and never show his face again.  If the latter holds true, then it’d mean that another comic villain has been summarily defeated in one shot.  That means he’d join the ranks of such dazzling staples like Iron Monger, Whiplash (and Justin Hammer, by proxy), The Mandarin, Abomination, Red Skull, Crossbone, Malekith, Ronan the Accuser, and (presumably) Yellowjacket.  Oh, and Ultron, too.  Moral of the story: don’t be a villain in a Marvel movie if you value your life.

Still, I have to reiterate: the strength of the Marvel movies is that it goes full tilt with whatever hero (or heroes) is featured in the title.  So while there’s plenty to like about Doctor Strange -- the visuals, the action, the drama, the jokes -- the main draw is 100% Doctor Strange.  The main character defines a story better than anything else a story has to offer, after all; for that reason alone, it’s hard for me to pretend like this new entry is “business as usual”.  I felt the same way after Civil War, of course, but it seems to me like the Marvel cadre is pushing toward something special.  Are they moving toward that goal at the proper speed?  That’s debatable.  Are they hurting themselves by keeping the cards effectively duct-taped to their chests?  There’s a good argument that they are. 

But for what it’s worth, this is yet another winner to throw onto the pile.  And that’s precisely why I’m putting it somewhere around HERE on my SmartChart™:

And that’ll do it for now.  See you next time…maybe in another six months when I can drag my ass back to the theaters for another Marvel movie.  Because as you know, there’s absolutely no other cultural tour de force that’s releasing a new entry in roughly a month’s time, necessitating the attendance of every living man and woman on the planet.

Nope.  Nothing at all.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Magikarp to catch.

In real life.

Because that’s how that works.

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