Running through the Wikipedia for the original Marvel comic Doctor Strange, the same question occurred to me that does pretty much any time a new comic book film debuts: why do most comics creators come off like such Randian creeps? The more appropriate question, of course, is why a mythology bearing the distinct influence of a bunch of Randian creeps has become such a dominant pop cultural concern. But hey, it’s Election Day, and I told myself this would not be a political column, so let’s table that question for now.
Instead, let’s talk about Stephen Strange himself, a gifted and famed neurosurgeon who decides to pursue a side career as a trippy wizard. If this idea can make $85 million in a weekend, I have a great pitch about a fireman who abandons a career saving grannies and school buses full of children so that he can join a team of extra military contractors, and move into their cool midtown high-rise as part of his annual stipend. Stephen Strange is the perfect hero for a time when superheroes are part of the norm–they are so assumed to be who we’re going to the movies to see–that you can play a little fast and loose with heroic archetypes and it will still be a given that the directors and writers are going through the correct beats to set up a pleasing mythology. One of the central messages of Doctor Strange is basically, “stop being so selfish, neurosurgeons!”
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe sub-franchise has its own branding and subtly different filmmaking styles to help create the impression that each one is in fact a different movie. (“The Captain America movies are like ‘70s political thrillers”—an article I probably read on the internet.) It’s kind of like how Walgreens brands its store brand over-the-counter medicine in ways that nod to their brand-name counterparts: Wal-itin, Wal-Zyr, Wal-Dryl. Doctor Strange is the Wal-Tussin of the MCU, because it’s brightly colored and will make you feel funky for a little while, while ultimately ensuring a deep and troubled sleep.
Doctor Strange also bears the historical burden of being the film that was on the top of the box office the week of the election that culminated one of the most toxic, troubling, faith-in-humanity-rattling campaigns in history. While Americans waited out the fate of our country in one of the most extreme quantum reality splits most of us have ever been alive for, we dragged ourselves down to the multiplex to watch Benedict Cumberbatch get tossed around candy-colored multiverse after multiverse by Tilda Swinton. The film is at times times visually exhilarating, and disorienting in the best way–it’s a perfect film for this week, a layer cake of corporate franchise obligations laced with the finest military-grade LSD. In 30 years, it will unmistakably look like a cry for help.
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The film is bloated and unfunny, spends long stretches of its two hours and ten minutes going through the motions of what one of these things should look like, and is plagued by a boringly retrograde notion of pan-Asian-ness while conveniently escaping the burden of casting any actual Asians in its principal roles. (Forget Swinton’s Ancient One and the attendant controversy; if we care so little about how these characters looked in the picture books on which they were based, why couldn’t Stephen Strange himself be South Asian?) Defenders of the film against the army of social justice types who have taken issue with Swinton’s casting, as well as many totally normal and nice white critics, have held up her performance as reason enough to forgive director Scott Derrickson’s increasingly bizarre justifications for her casting.
In truth, if none of this had ever been an issue—if the source material was about a guy who travels to mystical Ireland, say, to gain his wizard powers—we wouldn’t be talking about this performance at all. It’s just not that special, especially for an actor with Swinton’s capabilities. She’s playing the Ancient One as a kind of quirky lady who always ends up being more benign than she initially seems. It kind of seems like she’s playing the Ancient One as herself? Which is her right … and what else was she going to do? It’s not a deep role on the page or on the screen, but that’s not particularly conspicuous in a movie this paper thin.
The Ancient One, who is in fact of unknown age, wears beautifully tailored jackets and is the “sorcerer supreme” when Stephen meets her, which means she’s the toughest, most experienced interdimensional wizard alive. About halfway through the film, it is revealed that she has extended her life by secretly dipping into the powers of the Dark Dimension, which is why her former buddy Mads Mikkelsen (here calling himself “Kaecilius”) abandoned her and is now trying to start a rebel faction by also using the power of the Dark Dimension, and by teaming up with Dormammu, who runs the place. Doctor Strange is also mad about how crooked the Ancient One is revealed to be, but he decides he’s going to use the Dark Dimension also, in order to right Mads’s wrongs. (I’d like to take this moment to remind you that this is a movie that many non-comic-fan adults are going to see out of a vague obligation to “keep up with the discourse.”) In the end, Mordo, the worst character in the movie, who is unfairly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the only guy who hasn’t experimented with the Dark Dimension. He’s so scandalized by everyone else’s corruption that he goes and beats up a handicapped guy after the credits.
The Ancient One dies because of some Dark Dimension reason, but before she goes she reminds Stephen: “It’s not about you.” She’s right: Doctor Strange is about the Ancient One. It’s about a bunch of guys who short circuit when confronted with the mistake of a powerful woman, in a world that runs on the mistakes—that greenlights entire Netflix series that take place in the mistakes—of powerful men. In reality, everyone’s on that Dark Dimension, even our ostensible hero Stephen Strange. And when they fight, they do so in a stomach-churning, nonlinear consensual hallucination, where there is no past or present, or up or down, or anything so banal as “the truth” to hang onto. When Thor shows up in the credits and asks Strange to join him on his latest quest with Loki, it all feels rather small. When you walk out of the theater into Election Week 2016, it feels even smaller.