For a franchise sprung from the fantastic realm of comic books, Marvel movies have not been particularly exciting on a broad visual level.
They’ve managed iconic little visual beats within setpieces but they’re never suffused with eye-popping aesthetics as a matter of atmosphere. (The two exceptions to this rule are Guardians of the Galaxy‘s garish cosmic cartooonishness and Thor‘s brassy mythological kitsch).
The Marvel film is more likely to stage its action setpieces and earnest conversations in vast empty spaces like sterile corporate buildings, parking garages, airport tarmacs, or mountain ranges. Given this predilection, the second half of Doctor Strange is absolutely jarring in a welcome way, never failing to give you plenty to gawk at.
But that’s the second half. Rewind. Rewind.
For the first hour we’re treated to your garden variety superhero origin story. You know it by heart, whatever the hero’s name.
He, it’s always a he, is designed from the following template: wealthy, white, handsome, well educated, employed with a lauded skill set before superpowers even arrive (doctor, inventor, lawyer, scientist, etcetera), and a Single Character Flaw (usually arrogance/selfishness) to overcome or learn to repress when he learns that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.
The rogue characters that don’t fit this description are generally relegated to the sidelines or, if they differ, differ in such ways as to boldly shout “this one is different!”
Doctor Strange, for all its intentions of opening up new mystic vistas within the Marvelverse, is utterly conservative about the template. In the first act Stephen Strange is permanently wounded in a car crash robbing his hands of their immense skills as a surgeon.
And thus we begin our quest as Bruce Wayne heads to the Himalayas oh sorry Tony Stark heads to the Middle East argh I mean Stephen Strange heads to Nepal to seek a cure and a fresh start. We know he’ll become “The Sorcerer Supreme” in short order but they think we need origin story movies every time so first comes The Journey to Redemption (aka earnest conversations + comic relief + mini action scenes) and the Baptism of Fire (aka world-threatening gigantic action setpieces).
Strange discovers his very own Hogwarts in Tibet with Tilda Swinton in the Dumbledore role as “The Ancient One” who imparts her knowledge. Or some of it.
The Ancient One is benevolent-seeming but also mysterious and shady (as superhero mentors are required to be — see Scott Glenn on Daredevil, Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D, and so on back through time).
She’s already lost a student to the dark side (Mads Mikkelsen plays the film’s villain Kaecilius) and now she, and her two main assistants Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong, the only Asian actor in a principle role despite the film’s settings which include Nepal and Hong Kong in addition to New York and London).
When Swinton was first cast there was alarm that a role always portrayed as an Asian man in the comics was rethought as a Celtic woman. This would surely have been less of a pre-release controversy had Marvel not been so slow to diversify its superhero army or if they had allowed their other far-East based hero (Iron Fist) to become the Asian character he always should have been in the less diversity-friendly America of the 1960s when he was created. Nope, he’ll stay a white man in the Netflix series.
As a Swinton connoisseur but more broadly as a person with eyeballs, I cannot in good conscious claim she’s anything but the absolute best thing in this movie. Yet it remains an enraging pity that Marvel refuses to fix their diversity problem.
We’re 8 years and 14 films into Marvel Studio’s explosively popular run now and they have NO excuse for this behavior. Yes they currently plan to correct this in 2018 and 2019 respectively with the first black lead in Black Panther and the first female lead in Captain Marvel but that’s embarrassingly past due.
It’s a pity that Doctor Strange gets bogged down in uncomfortable reckoning’s about Marvel’s racial problems and its absolutely generic story (it’s basically Iron Man with magic) because the film improves considerably as it goes along.
There’s unexpected comedy and great visual. An early recurring visual of Strange trying to conjure magic energy before it snuffs itself out is a great unintended metaphor for the way the movie keeps trying to get started. But once Strange starts casting his spells successfully and the film starts freely globe-hopping the movie piles on the delirious visuals to jaw-dropping success.
It’s as if Alice kept on falling right past Wonderland until she arrived at several crazier places all at once inside of a kaleidoscope and surrounded by mirrors.
Doctor Strange’s last act is so trippy and exciting — Marvel could well win their first Visual Effects Oscar — that you can almost forgive that generic story. But Marvel really needs to loosen up on the template reigns and let filmmakers free. They’ve got these movies down to a science but science has little room for magic.