Doctor Strange, the fourteenth entry in the seemingly never-ending saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is founded on an intriguing premise and gets off to a decent start, but there comes a point when it loses its way, and by the end, it devolves into pure silliness. Perhaps the problem is that its underlying idea – that our universe is but one of an infinite expanse, and that we are not mere flesh and blood but astral beings capable of reaching into this expanse and drawing energy from it – is far too fascinating and complicated to be reduced to a very human dichotomy like good vs. evil.
It goes without saying that I know zilch about how the universe actually works, but given the brains I have and know how to use, and given my place in this particular plane of existence (based on the assumption that another one exists), I refuse to believe the universe is so … well, so simple.
Or perhaps the problem is that the film is too thematically similar to Star Wars, in the sense that particular aspects of eastern mysticism are filtered through the conventions of a populist film genre – in this case, the comic book adaptation. In other senses, too. When you hear that the characters in this film can reach into an astral plane and draw forth energy that can be manipulated, tell me this doesn’t make you think of the Force. When you learn that Earth is being protected from evil dark forces by a faction of monks trained with ancient texts and martial arts, tell me this doesn’t remind you of the Jedi Knights. When you find out that the primary antagonist trained under these monks, only to go rogue and fight back, tell me this isn’t exactly the same as Darth Vader. When you see the protagonist, who in desperation seeks the monks out and ultimately learns their magic ways, and who arrogantly plunges himself into an epic universal battle before his training is complete, tell me he isn’t very reminiscent of Luke Skywalker.
Then again, perhaps the problem is simply that I’m tired of comic book films. I’m typically the first to defend the use of CGI, especially in relation to films that couldn’t have been properly visualized as little as thirty years ago. But because advancements in CGI have allowed for three or more comic book movies a year for the past decade, I admit that I’m beginning to long for the good old days, when it was much harder to visually bring such stories to life, and therefore made their releases fewer and farther between. At one time, it was just the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now, it’s that along with the X-Men films, its periodic spinoff sequels, and the DC Extended Universe, the latter of which will see two films released next year alone. What’s worse, the filmmakers have seen to it that all these films, respective to the studio and comic book publisher they belong to, are to some degree narratively entwined with one another, essentially ensuring that important details from previous chapters will become dimmer and dimmer in the memories of moviegoers as new chapters are released. I can’t take it anymore. I need a break.
The problem could be any or all of these things. To be as fair as possible, I can give the film credit for its mind-bending Inception-esque visuals, in which urban landscapes defy all gravitational laws, morphing, folding, separating, stretching, and drifting before our very eyes. And I’d be lying if I said that the film’s IMAX 3D presentation doesn’t enhance these visuals greatly; specific shots are so clear, so bright, so immersive that they achieve an almost Freudian level of uncanniness. Credit also to stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, and Rachel McAdams for their convincing performances – as convincing as they can be in a comic book movie, at any rate. Cumberbatch in particular fakes an American accent that doesn’t call attention to itself, allowing for a much easier investment in his character.
This would be the brilliant but arrogant New York neurosurgeon Stephen Strange. Despondent following a car accident that robbed him of the use of his hands, he travels to Kathmandu to seek very literal spiritual healing. As a scientist, he of course doesn’t really believe in such a thing, but as the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. Anyway, instead of healing, he’s trained by an enigmatic woman known only as the Ancient One (Swinton) to become one of many mystical guardians that keep the forces of darkness from evil universes from invading and conquering our planet. He must also stop one of the Ancient One’s former disciples (Mikkelsen), who has since sided himself with the forces of darkness, from allowing them to enter our realm. Or something along those lines; having not read a page of the comic book series on which the film is based, I can’t pretend that I fully understood what was going on or why.
It sounds like an engaging story, and for a time, it is. But after a while, the limited scope with which Doctor Strange was conceived became all too apparent. If you’re going to examine a concept as abstract yet absorbing as the universe and our place in it, why not do it seriously? Why limit it to something as innately escapist as a comic book? And why do it in such a way that it evokes a much beloved film franchise, if only vaguely? But no, I’m asking the wrong questions. Why are we being inundated with one comic book film after another, besides the obvious fact that they make money? Have we as moviegoers become so dependent on action and special effects that we need a fix more than once a year? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with getting that fix every so often. The history of movies, after all, is founded on entertainment, not edification. But when you’re getting that fix multiple times a year, I fear that it has turned into an unhealthy addiction.