I saw DOCTOR STRANGE this weekend, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The character combines two things I like–superheroes and modern-day wizards–but I’ve never really felt he was well served in the comics. Great name. Bad look. Unsatisfying stories. Part of that comes from his most popular villains: Baron Mordo and Dormammu, neither of which thrills me. I’d much rather read MGK’s imagined run of the comicsthan any of the actual comics I’ve seen so far.
So my expectation was that this would be a disappointment, and those expectations were reinforced by early reviews that went “Meh.” Or even worse “Competent Marvel Content of the Type We Have Come to Expect.”
Frankly, the film is much better than that. Not perfect, but I’d rank it in my top 5 MCU pictures, maybe top 3.
Yeah, it’s a problem that they whitewashed The Ancient One to make sure they could rake in all that sweet Chinese box office. It looks like they ran as far as they could from the possibility that some bureaucrat would decide the character was coded as Tibetan. But that casting decision is separate from Swinton’s performance, which perfect. She elevates every scene she’s in, effortlessly.
Likewise, the idea that the movie is not “about” anything or that Strange himself doesn’t change (“who shows minimal emotional growth even as he wins, convincingly, for two straight hours”) is silly on its face.
Yeah, it’s another origin story. People say they’re sick of those, but that’s not showing in the box office. It’s also a problematic origin, since it’s of the “Visiting White Guy Does Non-White Culture Best Of All” genre. The movie takes some of the sting out of that by making the wizards as diverse as possible, but it’s still in the mix.
Besides, this is an origin story that actually matters. It’s not “I grew up and took revenge” or “I am a good guy who got the power to be even better.” It’s the story of a terrible person who becomes a good one, and it’s also the story of coming to terms with a disability. Strange spends most of the movie trying to get back to where he was before the accident so he can return to (what he thinks is) his best self, but his best self was a massive shit head. He’s a doctor who won’t see patients who are very old or very sick, because he’s protecting his reputation.
The Ancient One tries to get him to understand he must surrender sometimes. He has to accept failure. He has to stop applying his brilliant mind to his own rep and start helping other people.
Strange just wants to be a fancy neurosurgeon again.
But then he needs his ex to save his life, and by that point he’s gotten kicked around enough to realize what a shit he’s been. He needs Mordo’s help. He needs Dr. West’s help. And to win the final battle he puts himself in a situation where he will lose over and over.
And the last shot, where he’s looking down at his trembling hands and straps on that broken watch, shows that he’s accepting that he has changed, and that he must now contribute to the world in a different way.
Yes, there are problems with the movie. Rachel McAdams’s role was thankless. The gorgeous visuals at the end of the movie weren’t as delightful as Strange’s first wild ride through the multiverse: cgi spectacle peaked early. The humor was welcome but sometimes fell flat. I’m not so enraptured that I thing it’s perfect. Far from it.
But that didn’t really matter, because I loved the character, loved the ending, loved the scars, loved the milieu, loved the performances, and loved the movie. After the stress of this election season and the revisions on my huge, unwieldy book, this movie made me joyful.