Director: Scott Derrickson
Runtime: 115 minutes
Warning: This review contains major film spoilers.
After nearly a decade of films produced by Marvel Studios, it has become quite clear that Marvel’s films greatly succeed when they have an ensemble to work with in their stories. Their protagonists often are in journeys that do not lend themselves well to the be-all, end-all focus of the story. The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Civil War are all definitively ensemble pictures, and they are the peak of the universe (do not @ me Iron Man fans).
That’s what makes Doctor Strange so disappointing and underwhelming. The film had the potential to be a mystical version of Guardians of the Galaxy but the insistence to tell the story of Stephen Strange while making everyone else just an object to serve his story was so tedious at best and insulting at its worst. The characters the Ancient One, Karl Mordo, Christine Palmer, Wong, and Kaecilius clearly had so much to offer. Their stories were not told, and the ensemble did not come together.
Guardians proved the studio could introduce five dynamic protagonists in one film and tell a compelling story. When you have a two-dimensional villain and do not take advantage of a potentially wonderful ensemble, the film has an incredibly small margin of error. The portrayal of that main character had to be virtually perfect at that point. The film failed miserably in that regard.
White Male Redemption
The core story in this film is the redemption of Stephen Strange. Strange is portrayed to be a middle-aged, privileged, selfish asshole. The story of an asshole becoming not an asshole is limited as it is, but it is hilariously shallow when it is the only true character arc in an entire film. It was made worse here because the story of Strange becoming not an asshole was told at the expense of the other characters’ stories as opposed to in concert with them.
When these other characters are females and people of color, your story has crossed over from tedious to condescending and outdated. The story of redemption is a fine. There are a lot of people in this world who have interesting redemption stories to tell. When a film uses women and people of color as props to tell the story of a white male though, the film needs to reconsider how the story is told or even if it needs to be told in the first place.
Supporting Minority Characters That Exist To Serve Our Main Character
Two of the major supporting characters were people of color (and men of course). While the characters thankfully did not rely on classic stereotypes (a particular fear with Wong – Strange’s man servant in the books), they were still relegated to the background of the film for all intents and purposes. Their stories were not told. Their journeys were not experienced by the audience in any way. They were props to serve the white protagonist.
As stated right above, the portrayal of Wong in the film was thankfully not of the dutiful manservant to the Sorcerer Supreme. Wong basically served as the head librarian for the Ancient One’s school
of witchcraft and wizardry. It was primarily a role designed to bring a consistent stream of levity in what was already a fairly quip-y film.
While Wong was quite entertaining (and performed well by the very talented Benedict Wong), the audience never learns anything meaningful about him. He’s an entertaining part of the scenery but a part of the scenery all the time. Hopefully, future films will actually allow Wong to have his own unique story and an actual character history.
Karl Mordo appeared to be The Ancient One’s second in command, and he got more substance to work with compared to Wong. The audience gets hints of a troubled upbringing for Mordo. It becomes clear that he was a very devoted servant of the Ancient One. He gets hints of an actual story at least! When it comes out that the Ancient One was using actual dark energy in order to change the laws of nature to keep herself alive, Mordo clearly felt betrayed. He could not grapple with the nuance of having to compromise yourself when you feel like the greater good is on the line.
That came to a head when Dr. Strange MESSED WITH THE LAWS OF NATURE or whatever in order to save the world at the end. It seemed like Mordo could be the saving grace of the ensemble in the short term and long term. While he spent most of the film spouting out exposition and mysteriously serving as Strange’s sidekick because Strange had the Chosen One arc, he finally had a major moment here. He could not follow Strange into that direction. His faith was broken.
Intrigue. Nuance. Lovely character and storytelling qualities. Then the post-credits scene revealed him to be wearing a hoodie and murdering sorcerers. This was such a slap in the face. When you don’t get to actually experience a character’s journey and learn of his history, this type of “turn” from good to bad is meaningless and insulting to viewers. When you’re executing it by making your token black character signify his evil turn by wearing a hoodie, you reveal yourself to be too ignorant to tell stories.
Supporting Female Characters That Exist To Serve Our Main Character
The supporting females characters in this film were Christine Palmer and the Ancient One. This was more of a mixed bag than the complete eye roll that was the positioning of the POC.
Christine Palmer (played admirably by Rachel McAdams) was a former lover of Stephen Strange who nurses him back to health after his accident, lets him know when he’s being too much of an asshole and needs to change, and then serves as Nurse-On-Demand when Stephen needs help in the second half of the film. In other words, it’s yet another character who does not get her own journey and instead is relegated to servicing the main character in his journey to redemption.
The Ancient One character (played by Tilda Swinton, giving the best performance in the film) at least got a little bit more to do and was greatly aided by the very game Swinton. The Ancient One proved to not be the all-powerful/all-seeing being that she could have been (and for the better). However, her death once again was there to serve the main character who inexplicably was such a natural at the mystic arts that he needed to be Sorcerer Supreme two-thirds of the way through the film. (The fact that the Ancient One has always been portrayed to be someone of Asian descent in the books is a further complication as well.)
Two-Dimensional Villain That We Have No Reason To Be Invested In
The great actor, Mads Mikkelsen, had the unfortunate duty of trying to breath life into the stock Marvel villain that has populated the great majority of Marvel films. Supposedly, the motivation of Kaecilius was that he came to the Ancient One after losing everyone in his life. Kaecilius discovered the Ancient One’s secret immortality and became indignant. Now, he wants to bring life-everlasting to Earth by destroying it as a servant of Dormammu or whatever. We know this because we were told it several times at a rapid pace by other characters.
Basically, Kaecilius was a religious zealot here that got close to zero screen time investment because Marvel origin stories do not have time to turn their villains into human beings. They are merely but a chess pawn for the chosen one hero to defeat in the larger quest of making more important films. Mads deserved much more than this, and it was a credit to his charisma that he was not a complete waste of space.
One Step Backward
While Doctor Strange had plenty of potential, creative action pieces, a clever ending sequence with the final level villain, and plenty of humor, the film felt like a retro Marvel outing that they were threatening to finally outgrow. These origin stories either need to take a completely different approach, or they need to be scratched completely.