I sometimes think it’s strange when people talk about a comic book character’s "true" identity. These characters were, and are, always changing to meet the commercial needs of the publishers. I mean, She-Hulk was briefly a member of the Fantastic Four! The only rules are a complete lack of rules.
Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange
And yet, there is something about the way Doctor Strange is drawn in the latest Marvel blockbuster that bugs me. I’m not a deep expert on comics. The number of comic book superheroes I have an emotional attachment to is not very large: Spider Man, Batman (90s animated series version), Rom The Spaceknight (that one’s never getting a $100 million movie), Dr. Manhattan, The Tick, and Doctor Strange.
Hiring Benedict Cumberbatch to play the Sorcerer Supreme was the perfect casting choice, which is keeping with the generally good decisions Marvel Studios has made under Producer Supreme Kevin Feige. And, as I’ll get to in a minute, Doctor Strange delivers big time on the visual front, and holds together reasonably well on the writing front. It’s the characterization that left me cold, which is surprising, because the promise of getting the characterization exactly right is what mustered the tiny bit of excitement I have left for Marvel-branded, extruded movie-type product.
After a perfunctory, McGuffin-establishing battle between reality bending mystics, we meet Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon whose massive intellect is outstripped only by his outsized self-regard. And how do the trio of screenwriters and director Scott Derrickson choose to demonstrate his extraordinary brainpower? Turns out he’s a master of 70s pop music trivia. Sure, they reveal this character beat while Strange is in the midst of delicate brain surgery, but wouldn’t a complete mastery of classical music history be more consistent with the character than a fondness for Chuck Mangionie? From the first introduction, they have changed Doctor Strange into Buckaroo Banzai.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Buckaroo Banzai! Far from it. (Where’s my $100 million version of Buckaroo Banzai Against The World Crime League, Hollywood?) But I can’t help but get the feeling that the real reason Doctor Strange listens to dad rock is because everybody loved Starlord’s mom’s mix tape in Guardians Of The Galaxy. Just as Batman and Superman are essentially the same character in Batman vs Superman, so too are members of Marvel’s much more varied hero stable morphing into marketing driven sameness.
Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One shows Stephen Strange what's up.
But at least Cumberbatch looks the part, and, as appropriate for an origin story, he gains gravitas as the story proceeds. Strange injures his hands in a car accident (don’t text and drive your Lamborghini, people!), ending his neurosurgery career. Medicine fails, so he heads of to Nepal (don’t want to piss off the Chinese market by using the original Tibet) in search of a magical way to restore the full use of his hands. Once there he finds Kamar-Taj, a monastery full of sorcerers led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, hitting her marks with crisp perfection), who teaches Strange the arts of conjuring and inter-dimensional travel. When the magic starts flying, Doctor Strange’s real strength is revealed. There are clear visual references, like the wall- and ceiling-walking martial arts moves taken from The Matrix and the recursive, bending cityscapes from Inception. But like an original beat built out of samples, the visual synthesis feels fresh, even while it pays tribute to artist Steve Ditko’s psychedelic 60s phantasmagoria.
Strange’s journey from adept to master is hastened by the attack of Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rogue student of the Ancient One who wants to summon a god of the Dark Dimension to Earth, offering the planet in exchange for everlasting life. Pretty standard stuff for a superhero flick, really, but at least it’s a coherent vehicle to keep the eye-popping visuals flowing.
Doctor Strange is the best superhero movie of the year, but it doesn’t do much to change my hypothesis that we reached Peak Comics with The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. The film’s sturdy competence offers a sharp contrast with the flailing nonsense of the DC filmic universe, which says to me that Disney and Marvel are the only studio today that has an actual good creative process in place. But there’s a thin line between “process” and “formula”, and despite all of its visual bravado, Doctor Strange’s reality bends too strongly towards formula.