Strange Times, Mister Doctor

Having finally gotten around to seeing the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I have some thoughts on Doctor Strange.


The Good

The basic requirement of any medium of entertainment is entertainment. If you get bored during a movie or song it’s failing to entertain you. So far, I’ve yet to be bored during any of the Marvel films, and Doctor Strange is no different. It has a nice blend of action, humour and mind-boggling special effects to keep me and other viewers watching. Those are definitely some of the best things about the film, actually.

While not as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy there are definitely still some comic elements to the movie. Benedict Cumberbatch may be known for his Shakespearean oratory and stoic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, he still has wit and charm when necessary.

The special effects are stunning, and, were they actually real things, would have massive implications for the world and universe at large. By that I mean that the movie shows a more mystical, magical element than has previously been available in the MCU, so opens the MCU to new wonders. The mysticism and multiple universes had been hinted at in some of the other films, particularly the Thor series, and even a bit in Ant-Man, but this new film takes it to a whole different level. Having Doctor Stephen Strange start as a ‘man of science’ before transforming into a ‘man of magic’ means that other characters could also have change their points of view. Hank Pym has some weird ideas already that show he might come around, for example. Thus, the movie does and excellent job of setting itself up for a sequel and still fitting within the wider aspect of the MCU.

The special effects were very reminiscent of The Matrix and Inception. In some ways I actually felt like I was watching those movies during Doctor Strange because of the visual twists and turns. No other Marvel film has used that style of filming before, but it worked well. It really made it feel like reality was distorted and that we all, in many ways, live in our perception of the world.

The Bad

Despite the fact that I did thoroughly enjoy the film, there are still some contentious issues in it. It felt like a standard origin story film that has become so familiar. Arrogant, successful man (almost always a man, especially in the MCU) has something bad happen to him that changes his point of view, he has to learn to use some new ability to defend both himself and others from the big bad. That fits the Tony Stark/Ironman story to a T, describes Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk, Thor and, other than ‘arrogant’, Steve Rogers/Captain America. Having a portion of the movie be the origin story would have been okay, but the entirety of it felt reused and rehashed here.

Along that same note, the script itself seemed almost a ‘write by numbers’ sort of movie. I’ve been reading quite a bit about screenwriting recently (in the hopes that I can finish and sell my own screenplay), and one of the resources I’ve been using noted that all successful screenplays have common elements. The basic three act story has a set-up, obstacles and resolution. Within that three-act story can be anywhere from five to eight (depending on the source) ‘plot-points’, the two big ones being ‘the big event’, which moves from Act 1 (set up) to Act 2 (obstacles), and the ‘the crisis’, moving from Act 2 to Act 3 (resolution). There’s also often a catalyst that sets up the big event, some mid-point or ‘point of no return’, a climax and a resolution. As I was watching the film I kept thinking to myself, ‘there’s the catalyst’, ‘there’s the point of no return’, ‘there’s the big event’. The movie was hitting all the boxes a successful screenplay hits but didn’t seem to be adding much creativity in the way it went about it. It felt very much ‘by the book’ for a super hero film. What made the first Iron Man and Captain America films were their bit of social commentary and slight twist on the typical story structure. Doctor Strange didn’t have that; or at least not as well-done as the others.

My biggest issue with the film was the Hollywood whitewashing. It’s a problem that dates back almost to the invention of film, and continues to show a legacy of racism. Doctoral theses could be (and perhaps have been) written about the matter, so I won’t get too much into it from an academic perspective. But even having the fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong in supporting roles the rest of the main cast was white. Strange, white; his teacher, ‘The Ancient One’, played by Tilda Swinton, white; Strange’s love interest, Dr Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams, white; his enemy, Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, white. Even though much of the movie was set in Asia Wong was the only prominent Asian character. Even though Strange lived in New York, a city that has a very diverse population, he worked with and dated white people. Why couldn’t Christine be Puerto Rican, or Dominican? Why couldn’t the Ancient One be Asian? Marvel’s tenuous explanation was that they didn’t want to be stereotypical showing a wizened old Asian person teaching a white person martial arts and magic, but that hold little water. Asia is not just China, Tibet or Japan — the stereotypical connoisseur’s of martial arts. The Ancient One could have been Vietnamese, Turkish or Indian (or some other Asian nationality) and not been the ‘stereotypical’ example.

Thscarlett-johansson-ghost-shell-asian-cgi__opte recent casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the live-action adaptation of the manga/anime series Ghost In the Shell merely perpetuates the problem. Are there really no capable Asian actors or actresses in the world? I find that extremely hard to believe. Yet, by continuing to whitewash the movies Hollywood is failing to further appeal to a huge percentage of the population. The world is a diverse place, filled with all sorts of people. Wouldn’t it be in Hollywood’s best interest to accept that fact and make their product more reflective?

Despite these problems Doctor Strange was an enjoyable film. It widens the whole scope of the MCU and lays the foundation for many, many more types of films. I look forward to seeing how Strange will fit into the Infinity War arc that’s building for 2018/2019 (and beyond?). In the meantime I’ll have to make do with Thor: RagnarokGuardians of the Galaxy 2 and Black Panther before then. Perhaps they will be less formulaic and whitewashed. To be fair, it’s hard to be whitewashed with Idris Elba, Chadwick Boseman and Zoe Saldana in leading roles.

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