Doctor Strange is a suitably entertaining film (especially if you’re into the Marvel stuff). I got drawn in by the Inception-like events in the trailer, and the full movie rewarded that interest.
That being said, there are both some things I didn’t like, and some things I did. So, I now spoil everything as I go through what I think worked well (or didn’t).
Why Tilda Swinton?
First, the not-so-great. The casting choice of Tilda Swinton for the Ancient One is a bit off. Was her acting good? Yes. Did she do a good job of dying off as an Obi-Wan should? Being mysterious? Mystical fight scenes? Yup, well done.
But it still seems off. This is a monastery somewhere in Nepal. Why is the Ancient One being handwaved as “Celtic”? Wouldn’t it be much more likely? It’s not that hard to find a good Nepali actress, is it? Though said actress probably wouldn’t have the same “star power,” which… does Marvel really need that, these days?
And if she is Celtic, why aren’t we doing this whole movie in a remote island near Scotland, and why aren’t all the ancient books of spells in old Gaelic or something? I realize that they’re going for the Tibetan mysticism flavor, but it feels weird that the only major character who isn’t European-descended (or, in Mordo’s case, British of Nigerian descent) is Wong the librarian (who still isn’t Tibetan or Nepali…).
Also, I like Wong. He’s amazing (and a great improvement upon the racial stereotypes that character apparently displayed in the original comics). He might be my second favorite character, after the Cloak of Levitation.
“Study and practice. Years of it.”
Marvel really missed an opportunity here.
Most of their superheroes pick up their powers through at least one of two methods. Option one, sudden traumatic event or unethical experiment that gives you powers. Consider the Hulk, Vision, Quake, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Captain America, and so on. Or they get their powers from something innate to themselves, whether that’s being not-human — such as Thor and Star-Lord — or from being an absurdly skilled human at the beginning, such as Iron Man.
Black Widow and Hawkeye are, at least in the movies, apparent exceptions. They gained their capabilities through “study and practice. Years of it.” But we don’t get to see that effort on screen.
With Doctor Strange, we had a chance to see that.
Not so much.
He’s still a prodigy who went through an MD-PhD program with an eidetic memory and an ego rivalling that of Tony Stark. He blazes through the magic studies in the course of what appears to be months, rather than years.
It’s basically Iron Man all over again, except this time, with magic instead of a cave with a box of scraps.
This could have been avoided. We could have had a short montage that covered several years rather than months, along with a few clips of Kaecilius working to translate and prepare his nasty ritual. But no, it was months. At least it was implied that Strange still has a lot to learn, but… it’d really be nice if we could see the extent of the effort it takes to make a Doctor Strange (or Black Widow, or Hawkeye) on-screen.
Still, this is better than the usual instant-hero-just-add-phlebotinum fare.
What really gets me is the character development. Somehow, Strange manages to change from an egotistical jerk into an entertainingly sarcastic hero over just a few months. Even Tony Stark didn’t manage that.
An Excellent Villain
Kaecilius is a fantastic bad guy. Who can argue with his ultimate intent — to ensure that no one ever dies again? Eternal life for everyone, after losing everyone he loved.
He didn’t read the fine print about what that eternal life would be like, so he doesn’t realize just why this is such a bad idea.
It’s not even necessarily obvious that he’s beyond all hope, all rescue, until he echoes one of Strange’s lines from earlier in the film — that the people he kills do not matter, they are mere specks — and we realize that he’s lost. He doesn’t care how many people he has to kill to get to his imagined paradise, and that’s one step too far.
Outlasting The Villian Behind The Villain
The climactic scene, where Dr. Strange encounters Dormmamu, is brilliant.
First, the critical relic — the Eye of Agamotto — has already served its purpose as a plot device once, gets used again to bring time into the timeless realm of Dormammu.
There, Strange confronts Dormammu. “I have come to bargain with you.” Dormammu kills him.
But, there’s a time loop, so each time Strange comes in, asks to bargain, and then, gets killed. But, by trapping Dormammu in the loop, he’s effectively holding the inhuman force of evil prisoner.
Dormammu eventually gets fed up with repeatedly killing Strange while Strange gloats at him, so he gives up and agrees to Strange’s terms (thereby saving the world as we know it).
I think this is the first time I’ve seen where the hero’s plan was, essentially, to annoy the villain until it gives up. Let the villain kill you so many times that it gets so bored and frustrated that it’s willing to listen to you. This was brilliant. (I’m not sure if the Too Spicy trope here applies, but it’s about the closest thing I could find.)
Especially when combined with Strange saying, in essence, “I will accept an eternity of torment to save people.” There’s a hero I’m willing to root for.
Why Is Earth Such A Weirdness Magnet?
In this film, the fifth of the six Infinity Stones is revealed: Time (obviously enough). Of those five, four have shown up on Earth, and the fifth was uncovered and used by a half-human guy abducted from Earth.
It’s too much. It’s a big universe; why are all the stones around here? Are they attracted to each other by some mystical means? Is Earth unluckily at some sort of ultimate cosmic conjunction? I need an explanation, or at least a hand-wave, pretty soon, or it’s not going to be pretty when my suspension of disbelief comes out of free-fall…
ARQ is how you do a cool time-travel film on a budget. (It’s available on Netflix; I recommend it.)
In a structural sense, it reminds me of the plot of Achron, albeit with a much smaller scope.
I’ll be spoiling the whole thing, so I hope you watch it first.