Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Doctor is In

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016, directed by Scott Derrickson) is the latest cog in Marvel Studios' massive marketing machine. By now, these are manufactured to a formula with varying levels of success. Marvel has a base level of quality they try to impose with that formula that usually makes the whole thing watchable despite the MCU being a shambolic behemoth slouching toward Bethlehem and all that.  Doctor Strange conforms uneasily to that formula. As a property, Strange is a singularly weird creation who never quite fit in with Marvel's main comics universe. As a token of his ill fit to that universe, it's been well over a decade since Strange headlined his own regular book. For the movies, he's a square peg that has been shaved of corners in order to fit into a round hole. The movie isn't entirely successful at this, and anyone who approaches the character with any kind of familiarity will wind up grousing about certain things. I'm such a person.

Doctor Strange was the first Marvel Comic I ever collected after receiving issue #33 of the 1970s series in my Christmas stocking one long-ago winter, so I have something of a personal stake in the character. He's a central part of my long love affair with comics. I have long runs of his stories including a complete run of his 1970s/80s comic and big chunks of his earlier appearances. I have almost all of his original 1960s stories by creator Steve Ditko in Strange Tales and reprints, and scattered other appearances after Ditko left the character. As you can imagine, I have certain prejudices about how the character ought to be done, but I'm not so fixed in them that I feel any entitlement to getting that character. Which is good, because the movie doesn't cater to my prejudices. This Stephen Strange is not my Stephen Strange. And if I don't like it, I can always go back to all those comics moldering away in longboxes in my attic.

In its broad outlines, the story one finds in Doctor Strange is more or less the story one finds in his origin story from 1963.  Brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange is in a horrific car accident that crushes his hands. Even though they're rebuilt by the best medicine around, the damage to his nerves is too severe. He'll never operate again. He becomes obsessed with restoring his damaged hands, spending all of his money on experimental treatments and driving away his colleagues and his paramour (in the film, fellow neurosurgeon Christine Palmer) until he has nothing left. At rock bottom, he hears of another man, one Jonathan Pangborn, whose profound neurological damage was miraculously healed. Strange seeks him out, only to discover that Pangborn's solution was spiritual rather than medical. He tells Strange of Kamar-Taj, a retreat in Kathmandu, where a mystic order resides. Strange leverages his last resources to seek it out. There, he finds The Ancient One, who scoffs at Strange and his skepticism, then opens his mind to a multiverse that can be channeled as magic. Strange abases himself to become The Ancient One's disciple. Strange gets off on the wrong foot. His own self-pity inhibits him. Once he manages to overcome that, he excels, much to the amazement of the other masters of Kamar-Taj. Chief among these are Mordo, who helps oversee Strange's training, and Wong, the librarian of Kamar-Taj. The masters are uneasy with Strange and his expanding thirst for knowledge. They are wary of him becoming a renegade. They have experience with this: before Strange's arrival, a past master, Kaecillius, and his zealots, invaded the library and killed the librarian in order to steal a ritual from the The Book of Cagliostro. Strange, in due course, becomes interested in this ritual and in the book from which it was stolen. He "borrows" the Eye of Agammoto, a powerful relic that can manipulate time, in order to read the stolen ritual. He is caught in the act, but not before he learns about the Dark Dimension and its ruler, the dread Dormammu. The masters of Kamar-Taj are pledged to defend this world from Dormammu and his like, their order having placed magical defenses at three sanctums around the world: in London, in New York, and in Hong Kong. It is Kaecillius's intention to destroy the sanctums and invite Dormammu to take possession of the Earth as a means of granting eternal life. Doctor Strange is soon drawn into the conflict as the masters come under attack...

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

The devil is always in the details with adaptations. I say that in its broad outlines Doctor Strange tells the same story one finds in the original comics, and that's true as far as it goes. In its particulars, however, it is very different from its progenitor. Mordo, for example, is not yet Strange's arch-enemy. There is no equivalent character to Christine Palmer until much, much later in the comics, The Ancient One is played by Tilda Swinton as a Celtic woman rather than as a Tibetan man, and Strange himself isn't nearly the same kind of asshole to start. In truth, I miss the asshole. Strange's abrasive arrogance is muted in the film somewhat, which makes the arc of his fall less satisfying, his redemption less startling.'s still there, particularly in a brutal scene where he banishes Christine Palmer from his life after she's given him everything, including her heart. It's there, too, in his skepticism of The Ancient One during their first meeting. But the film is uncomfortable with an unlikable hero, so it gives him an out. So it gives him character quirks--his encyclopedic knowledge of music trivia, for one example--that makes him rather into a classic "smartest person in the room and he knows it" personality, which is not the same thing as an unrepentant asshole. More, the film places his asshole tendencies almost exclusively after his accident where they can be understood as frustration and despair, whereas the comics' origin makes him an asshole from the outset. Strange's origins in the comics are recognizable as a variant of A Christmas Carol, and nobody ever suggests that Scrooge should be "likeable" before his dark night of the soul. Doing this to Stephen Strange seems a peculiar bit of cowardice on the part of the filmmakers. As a longtime reader, Strange seems enough off model that it bothers me, an aspect of the film not helped by Benedict Cumberbatch's inconsistent American accent.

Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Doctor Strange

Tilda Swinton's Ancient One does not bother me much, whitewashing and genderbending and all (I will acknowledge, but leave aside, the bullshit bleatings and excuses offered by the filmmakers for this). This surprises me a little because I'm genuinely sick of white people in whitewashed ethnic roles. The Ancient One is a part that could have been played by, say, Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung or even Chang Pei Pei and maybe that would have been a better solution than Swinton (it certainly could have helped that Chinese box office the studio was so worried about). But if this must be the way of things, they could have done a lot worse. Such is Swinton's gravitas, off-beat star persona, and impish approach to her character that she lights up the film when she's on stage. She's austere enough call out Strange's self-pity and bullshit. She's unimpressed by his genius and his former status. She lets Strange know that he's NOT the smartest person in the room whenever she's around. She gives Strange better than he ever gives and does it with a twinkle in her eye. She's a more nuanced character in the film than the comics version ever was: The Ancient One has traditionally served as either a plot device (The Ancient One is under threat) or as a deus ex machina in the comics. The movie version is morally ambiguous where the comics version is an unquestioned paragon of virtue. She's a woman who forbids magic to her students that she herself uses, thus setting the plot in motion. Mordo, too, is a morally ambiguous character in the film: not a magical thug as he is in Strange's origin story, but an unbending ideologue, not yet a villain but on the path to villainy. Mordo's fall from grace here is much more compelling than any character arc provided him in the comics. It is, indeed, a more compelling character arc than what the movie provides for Strange himself. It helps that Mordo is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor capable of tremendous nuance and both moral rectitude and glowering menace. The Marvel movies have been collecting amazing actors for almost a decade now.

Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

Of course this is all a spectacle. The psychedelic elements of the comics are in full force here, even if some of them seem like elaborate extrapolations of Inception. When The Ancient One sends Strange on his first trip through the multiverse, the film is almost experimental, bedecked and bejeweled with a surrealism that would be the envy of the album-cover artists of the 1970s (to whom the filmmakers pay an oblique homage with Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive." The Dark Dimension, when it eventually appears, is a massive, big-budget imagining of Ditko's original conception, lit with colors that fluoresce like a black-light concert poster circa 1973.Its recreation of the comics is marred only by its version of Dormammu himself, though in the filmmakers' defense, any version they came up with was likely to appear ridiculous. Mads Mikkelsen is much more compelling a villain, one whose villainy is given nuance by The Ancient One's own moral turpitude, and by the ideological underpinnings of his actions. He's comprehensible. Dormammu is not.

There are other things to like in the film. The Cloak of Levitation is a scene-stealer, envisioned as a character unto itself. Wong's flirtation with Beyonce. Strange's brief astral sojourn while his body lies on an operating table. I think the thing that rescues this film from my misgivings about how they've imagined Stephen Strange himself is the way the film resolves Strange's battle with Dormammu. Strange cannot ever win this battle, but he manages to lose it over and over again in a way that Dormammu cannot abide. This is the second Marvel movie, after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to turn its plot on the hero choosing non-violence over violence. I think the willingness to contemplate non-violence, more than anything, is what makes Marvel's product more palatable than its competitors.

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