One from the Shelf: “Doctor Strange”

Here we are, back again with another One from the Shelf.

This new selection is “Doctor Strange,” a movie I most definitely was not in love with when it came out. I tweeted something about being bored by the story and not liking the characters. I also said, however, that I loved the visuals.

This last has stuck with me through multiple viewings of the film. I am not a huge fan of 3D endeavors, but I hugely regret not having seen “Doctor Strange” in 3D. It seems like a movie perfectly conceived for 3D, particularly the mirror dimension sequence in New York. In fact, I still hope that one day I’ll get to see it in 3D and my thoughts on the film will change entirely; that the experience will be revelatory.

I think, and have for years, that if you’re going to make a spectacle movie, you really need to go for it. If part of the point of the film is to show people things that they haven’t ever seen before and get that “wow” factor, you need to truly do it, you can’t go halfway. “Doctor Strange” does not go halfway. The way it incorporates special effects into the movie itself is outstanding, particularly with the sets and backgrounds. Even if the movie has nothing else going for it, it has that.

But, that forces the question – does the movie have anything else going for it?

Maybe?

I find myself constantly reevaluating the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. To some extent they have become difficult to rate each individually. The movies are in dialogue with one another and so it seems almost right to discuss the pros and cons of one in comparison to the pros and cons of another. Which one uses humor better? Which one offers more impressive set pieces? Which one has the best characters? The best costumes? The best villains? The best sidekicks?

And yet, every movie has to stand on its own, be its own thing, work by itself. If, in reviewing a film, one only discusses it in comparison to other films, one is doing a disservice to the movie and to the reader. Beyond that, I can’t imagine that Marvel would want these movies to only work in concert with each other – think about the diminishing audience if one has to see every movie in the universe to understand any movie in the universe.

So, where does this leave me with “Doctor Strange?” After having just rewatched it, the whole thing feels too easy. The movie only gives us the shortest of glimpses at the struggles Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) faces with finding a fix for his surgeon hands post-accident. It only gives us the shortest of glimpses at his struggles to learn the mystic arts. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) sees he’s having trouble, drops him on Mount Everest and a minute later, Strange can do anything.

I get that the character is a genius who excels at everything, but that kind of makes him a little boring, right? The movie isn’t about his struggle to learn the mystic arts or how to be a sorcerer, it’s about his learning how to be human, and even that doesn’t feel too terribly tough for him.

Beyond that, he only wins the day because he violates the rules of the place where he’s studying. That doesn’t feel like him learning to be a good person, that feels like he’s learning to be the same self-centered, holier-than-thou, dude he’s always been.

I do like that Strange is able to succeed with the mystic arts because of his intelligence, I put great stock in intelligence, but victory based upon rule-breaking and going down that path to evil doesn’t quite necessarily feel like victory. There is certainly a case to be made for what he does, and I’m willing to have that discussion, but part of Strange’s rule-breaking is treated like a joke, and that I think is wrong. If the movie’s goal is to have us understand that Strange has been proceeding down the wrong path, doing the wrong thing, why play that for laughs? Sure, it’s done in funny fashion, but it undercuts the entire story.

Every holiday season I read “A Christmas Carol.” I have done this for about a decade now, and I’m constantly finding new stuff in there, something different to enjoy. Reading it this past year I struggled with Scrooge himself – why is Ebenezer Scrooge worthy of this special event? Why do the ghosts visit him? What make him deserving of this treatment?

I thought long and hard about this as I was reading it, and the tale I have loved for years started to taste kind of ashy. Scrooge does not deserve to be elevated to be special status because he is rich, that can’t be the message Dickens put in there.

So, what is the message?

I decided that it has something to do with the degree to which Scrooge is evil, with his fortune a byproduct of that evil. Scrooge is a worthy choice for attempted salvation because Scrooge has done such terrible things. Scrooge has the power to do great things as well, certainly, but I don’t think that is the main reason for the visitations, I think it’s his evil. There is something in the whole idea of redemption of taking the worst amongst us and making them good, particularly during the holiday season that is worthy of consideration.

This is important here because watching the movie this week I started to equate Strange with Scrooge. This is a guy who gets to the Ancient One and her home at Kamar-Taj because he has the money and time to research it. And, I know that we hear how he’s running out of cash, but look at that apartment he owns – his running out of cash isn’t like other people’s running out of cash.

So, it would be like Scrooge only getting to see the ghosts and travel with them because he has money. That makes the story far less interesting.

Beyond that, Strange is still the same headstrong guy at the end of the movie that he is at the beginning, he’s just doing it in the service of something else. We have no indication that he’s listening to others about the best way to proceed, that he’s taking anyone else’s advice on stuff.

Imagine Scrooge attempting to shove his idea of happiness down the Cratchits’ throats, convinced of the appropriates of his actions. That’s where the movie leaves Strange.

And so, I close this “One from the Shelf” with the same sort of mixed feelings I’ve had about the movie since I first saw it. It is at times stunningly beautiful, but it has no shortage of problems, particularly with the character at its center and his progress (I didn’t even get into the extreme disappointment one has to feel with the baddies). Strange is worthy of redemption, we all are, but I’m not sure he earns his.

 

photo credit: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment/Marvel.com

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