Marvel’s dominance in the arena of blockbusters has allowed for the brand to introduce more obscure characters in their catalogue, characters that are otherwise ‘hard sells’ if introduced without the knowledge and universe building executed by the previous films. Without Iron Man, Dr Strange would have continued to languish in the brightly coloured pages of the comic books, suffering in his role of the ‘fan favourite’ character. Loved by the fans of the House of Marvel but ignored by everyone else.
Therefore, it is easy to see why Marvel has decided to go all out with Dr. Strange, with its attempts at high concept special effects, big name actors in an ensemble cast, Michael Giacchino on score, and a marketing budget the size of the GDP of small nation, this is the production ‘dream team’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One area Marvel is still unwilling to spend big on though, is the traditionally ‘important’ role of director. And it shows, for all the stops that Marvel has pulled to ensure Dr. Strange’s quality, without a director with a creative voice, this movie ends up being a dream team with no interesting direction.
After a horrific car accident robs Dr Stephen Strange of his physical abilities as a neurosurgeon, he travels to Tibet to seek out a cure. As he trains in the ways of the mystic arts, he comes to terms with his purpose in life, not just as a doctor but also as a person.
Everything about this film screams intense focus group meetings and obsessive market research, rather than a director’s artistic or creative choice. The Marvel Method works, the director is now a puppet, a messenger to dictate the whims of the executive board. Everything feels like a Marvel movie, from the opening pop track to ease the viewers into the character of Doctor Stephen Strange, to how the cinematography looks, and it does look like every other Marvel film out there (more on that later). Similar to other origin stories in the Marvel slate of films, this film has an extremely distinct pattern in its narrative. Hero is arrogant, hero loses everything, loses redeems himself and figures his role in a greater world. I could list several Marvel movies in this mold but to put it simply, and boldly, Marvel’s formula has not changed a day since Robert Downey Jr suited up in 2008’s Iron Man.
Nothing in the story particularly stand out, the characters do what they need to do to establish the story and nothing more. There is a pedestrian tone to the film, swap Dr Strange for Antman, or Iron Man and with a few minor, adjustments in terms of powers and villains, it is still the Same. Exact. Story. The hero’s journey is stretched to its maximum load bearing weight.
There isn’t no attempt at relating the character to the audience, there is no reflection over Stephen Strange’s arrogant behaviour, he just is until he no longer isn’t. When he is humbled, it is not because he has learnt his lesson or his place. It is neither, he just behaves because that is how the script needs him to behave. The audience becomes a bystander instead of an active participant in the movie going experience, just watching events go by, unable to relate to the cosmic battles that unfold before our eyes.
Likewise to the rest of the characters, Mordo’s disillusionment does have an arc but it appears only at moments of convenience rather in moments of genuine narrative interest. Even Strange’s cape gets the laziest introduction ever, it chooses him without Strange even having to earn its use, the entire film is filled to the brim with all too convenient moments like these in order to generate plot momentum. A sudden attack by Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius is used to move the narrative, there is little that is in Strange’s control and as a character, he is guided from one action set piece to another with no agency of his own.
Considering that the cast is made up of phenomenal talent, it is a tragedy to see them go to waste in generic and rigid roles. The formulaic script hampers the performances, actors are burdened by the script rather than empowered by it.
Benedict Cumberbatch is up to the task of Dr. Stephen Strange but that is not saying much, he does not have a lot to work with in the first place. While the character is established adequately, characterization remains a problem. Cumberbatch mopes around for much of the film, relying on his awkwardness to generate some physical comedy and his stoic arrogance to emote. Beyond that, there isn’t an ambitious streak in his performance, he still is the Cumberbatch that fans are familiar with but non fans would not care for. His chemistry with the rest of the cast is also wanting, Rachel McAdams is forced into the role of the love interest, achieving nothing with her screen time other than serve as comic relief and to build up Strange as a character, their interactions are forced ‘ping pong’ dialogue that attempts to highlight the charm of both but it fails, only reveal how choreographed and unnatural their performances are.
Mordo fares better but not by much, he is a full on exposition machine, constantly informing the viewer about backstory, but Chiwetel Ejiofor infuses the character with a sense of world weariness and bitterness that allows the character to be the most memorable in the film, even if these moments are few and far between.
The Marvel Villain Syndrome strike again, as even the talented Mads Mikkelsen is unable to salvage a bland, badly written villain in Kaecilius. More caricature than character, Mikkelsen gives a stone faced performance with nothing to his backstory other than a few choice exposition by Mordo, the fatal flaw of too much telling and not much showing. Mikkelsen none the less tries his best to lift the material he is given but it is a case of too little too late.
This is an alarming trend in Marvel films. After 8 years of constant, intensive worldbuilding, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to have an iconic, centerpiece villain that could hold a movie on his or her own. This lack of quality villains affects the quality of the overall film, as the hero literally has nothing to struggle against, Strange is fighting himself more than he is fighting Kaecilius. The navel-gazing protagonist approach clashes widely with the blockbuster narrative that Marvel is trying to sell with Dr. Strange and the end result is neither an intimate character piece nor an epic blockbuster. It just feels mechanical and generic.
Audiences should all now be familiar with the Marvel ‘look’. Similar to the Marvel Comics’ ‘house style’ which is enforced on its comic artists, the cinematography is similar in style and execution with the other Marvel films. I understand the need to have a consistent look across the entire Marvel universe but this enforcement of visual style is starting to adversely affect the end product. Generic framing and the abuse of the mid shots turns the cinematography into unspectacularly visual monotony. The visual splendour of the scenes in the multiverse is contrasted with drab, parking lot aesthetic of the real world scenes. You got to wonder though, if all these movies look alike, with similar narratives and storylines, offering nothing visually interesting, then what exactly are we paying to see?
Maybe the visual effects, which are spectacular, especially with Strange’s journeys to the multiverse, ethereal vistas and space gates that owe a debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It showcases a brilliant, vibrant universe that could have been explored. But we spend too little time there, with a weak narrative that is focused on boring ol’earth and lack of visual ambition in its cinematography, the visual effects are reduced to a spastic lightshow. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Speaking of sound, Marvel somehow manages to squeeze out the most generic score out of Michael Giacchino, one of the greatest score composers working today. There is nothing of note in the aural Marvel universe and rather than choose to break new ground, Dr. Strange only reinforces the Marvel house style of generic action and emotional themes. You won’t hum any musical themes as you walk out the theatre, though you probably wonder what’s next for the sequel. Maybe in terms of movie marketing, Marvel did something right by leaving out an iconic soundtrack.
I do believe the lack of strong direction is responsible for the film’s weaknesses. Scott Derrickson is primarily known for low budget genre fare and he does not manage to get any of his stylistic signatures on this film at all. Derrickson’s direction comes across as mercenary-like, hired only to execution the board’s vision and that is all to it. There are no obvious artistic or creative considerations, no moments of strong cinematic interests. Once again, in the battle between Marvel Studios and ‘The Director’, Marvel gets their hands raised again, this is Marvel’s film more than it is Derrickson’s.
While the ensuing whitewashing controversy is overblown and is the least of the film’s problems, there is still much to be said about how the film ends up turning out. Tilda Swinton is a great actress and puts up a great portrayal of the Ancient One, that said, she offers nothing special to the role that any actor or actress of Asian descent could have similarly pulled off. Still, that would be stereotypical casting of the ‘Old Master’. This is a problematic character, as are the Dr. Strange mythos. Borne out of Orientalism and the west’s obsession with the ‘Far East’, Dr. Strange tries to be faithful to the comics while being as inoffensive as possible.
Asian actors only serve as window dressing, hovering around the actors of western descent, never truly penetrating the narrative, they are part of the background, props and production design. Even Wong only serves to provide comic relief, while it is an admirably attempt to break Wong out of his offensive manservant role that he occupies in the comics, it is still messy in its execution. Unlike the comic relief characters of previous Marvel films, from War Machine to Drax the Destroyer, Wong is written to be unthreatening to anyone, we do not see him kick ass, instead he gets schooled by Dr. Strange when the latter steals books from the library. Can you see the same thing happening if it was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo who was the librarian? No, there will be hell to pay if that happens and the outrage will be much bigger.
I do not believe that ‘social justice warriors’ are going to go after Marvel for this, but I do believe that Marvel missed the argument. Dr. Strange, with its hero’s journey and Far East window dressing, is reminiscent of every white saviour fantasy film that came before it, from Karate Kid to Last of the Mohicans to The Last Samurai.
There is a lot going against Dr. Strange, weak direction and cinematography, generic score, mundane performances. However there is an old sports adage that states that ‘Offense wins you games but Defense wins you championships’. In the film industry, there is no bigger championship than reigning supreme at the box office. Instead of a director led offense of artistic daring, Marvel has proven that it is the defensive mentality of formulaic filmmaking, great branding and ambitious marketing that leads you to the title. For better or for worse, Marvel movies are now in a league of their own, every new entry, no matter the quality, only serves to reinforce their dominance. There is no doubt Dr. Strange will rule at the box office but it will also change the way filmmaking will be perceived as an artform and the roles within film production.
** Out of 5
Great actors, great visual effects are let down by a bad script, lacklustre direction, generic cinematography and weak soundtrack. The Marvel brand has bailed out its product for a quite a while now, the big question is, how much longer can it do that?
After Dr. Strange, you should watch:
Iron Man- The bible of which the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is built on, every film that came after is slavishly influenced by this one.
Karate Kid- Probably the definitive movie in the ‘white saviour’ subgenre. This is 80s kitsch at its finest.
Inception- Visual effects weaved into an intricate, compelling plot. This is how CGI is supposed to be used.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning- Scott Adkins, one of Kaecilius’ henchmen, is better known as an extremely talented direct-to-video action star. His greatest film and also one of the greatest direct to video films ever made, is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The only way to describe it would be a Jackie Chan film by way of David Lynch. It has to be seen to be believed.
Valhalla Rising- Mads Mikkelsen plays a one eyed slave on a journey to Jerusalem. The term ‘cinematic experience’ has been bantered about too often but they are a fitting description to Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Valhalla Rising is a brutal, unforgiving fever dream.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review and a film and commercials director. He directed the documentary short film BLACK RAT, which has been screened at over 10 film festivals and showcases and won 3 awards, including Best Documentary at Phoenix Comicon 2016. His latest short film Hard Vision, is currently on its festival run. You can follow him on Instagram at: perrylam29