A Dip into Psychedelia
Dr. Strange follows Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon who is the best at what he does. Benedict Cumberbatch channels a lot of Tony Stark in his creation and portrayal of Dr. Strange, and a great portion of the movie is him coping with the lost of his hands following a car accident where he lost control of his vehicle.
Strange eventually ends up at a monastery where his belief system is challenged as he’s shown the way to heal using astral projection and other mental abilities.
Here’s where Dr. Strange diverts from all of Marvel. Until now, with the exception of Scarlett Witch, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor, magic has never been a factor in these films. Dr. Strange holds the distinction of being the only film where magic is introduced and explained. What follows is a film that is much more philosophy than action. The film’s main antagonist is Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen, but his role is very limited to showing how powerful Dr. Strange actually is. As a neophyte at the start of the film, Strange quickly becomes so skilled that he is able to totally best this sorcerer who is a master of his craft.
Instead, Dr. Strange focuses on the concepts of willpower, manifesting intentions, and doing so with a lot of psychedelic imagery. At one point, Stan Lee makes a cameo while reading Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception. The movie holds nothing back in how its philosophy and imagery are heavily influenced by Aleister Crowley, Thelma, and DMT trips. That also seems to be the vehicle to get their messages across: if you assume you know everything on a topic, then the door is already closed; why bother trying to learn. As Dr. Strange, in his quest for healing, opens up, he is recruited into a war that he wasn’t prepared for.
The movie does one fascinating and excellent thing that should have happened way earlier, possibly after The Avengers. In it, Dr. Strange is told while the Avengers protect the world from physical attacks, the Order at Kamar-Taj is the defense for Earth against the metaphysical. This creates an explanation of why attacks on Earth are growing increasingly destructive; entities need new approaches to break through.
With a focus on philosophy, and pushing to create a character that is substantially different from the rest of the MCU, Dr. Strange stands out as a movie on its own. However, thanks to the marketing machine at Disney, it is part of a bigger machine.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe
By 2016, we have had a lot of superhero movies. This is thanks to the fact that Disney, owner of Marvel Comics, decided to invest in a movie franchise that would create movies BASED on other movies without necessarily being direct sequels. The best example of this Avengers: Age of Ultron, which references the Winter Soldier, a character introduced in Captain America’s sequel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
This sort of storytelling device is a neat one because rather than having several long Avenger films to build each character, they can have movies that focus on just the group dynamic, with the solo films building everything else up. This creates a massive dependency on the viewers to watch everything in order to understand some off-hand reference. I believe with Dr. Strange is the 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which means in order to understand the fullness of this film, viewers have to commit at least 26 hours (13 movies at ~2 hours a piece) just for one universe. These films are all building towards the grand conclusion – Avengers Infinity Wars, which may expand across two movies.
This is all well and good, however, as more characters need to be added to the Infinity Wars film, there will be many more origins to add. Eventually, viewers will want a break.
Yet Another Superhero Origin Story
Origin movies are usually the best a series has to offer because it takes no assumptions with individual characters and walks the viewer through the process. Since 2014, the following origin movies have come out.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (reboot)
- Kingsman: The Secret Service
- X-Men: Days of Future Past*
- Ant-Man (MCU film)
- Dr. Strange
These are just origins movies, or points in a series where (like with X-Men) the series changes. With X-Men: First Class, it was a reboot of a new series, going back to the when Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr form the X-Men. However, other than a Hugh Jackman cameo, it wasn’t considered to be directly related to the original 2000s trilogy. Days of Future Past changed that by making it all the same universe.
Another Player Has Arrived
DC has really only succeeded in delivering one trilogy of good comic adaptions with Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Though the final film was a bit up for debate in how good it was, The Dark Knight is objectively a great film. Man of Steel attempted to deliver in a similar way, a darker film with more grounded implications. It did all right by most accounts, and the sequel was retooled. Instead of a stand alone film, the direct sequel was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The movie also marked the pivot in Warner Brothers to build to the Justice League, DC’s Avengers, though the Justice League existed for three years longer.
The problem is Christian Bale isn’t Batman in this universe, and there is no connection to the Nolan movies at all. Also, every hero needs to be introduced. Marvel took five movies over four years to build to the Avengers. When that movie finally arrived, they had introduced Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Captain America in their own films. Hawkeye and Loki are also introduced in Thor. By the time Avengers actually comes out, we know all these characters and actors (save for the recasting of Hulk with the vastly superior Mark Ruffalo). This means the team up movie is all ready to get into the core of the meshing of attitudes and personalities.
Not so with DCU. In Batman vs. Superman, we had a new Bruce Wayne and a new Alfred. Wonder Woman was introduced, Lex Luthor was introduced, and we see cameos of Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash. Setting up all this story for future movies, made the very long movie miss a lot of plot development, and we had no real emotional connection to Superman when he dies in the finale. Suicide Squad, a terrible, terrible film, takes place after Batman vs. Superman with Superman still dead, and adding in The Flash as one of the heroes to stop members of the Suicide Squad. As seen in the trailer, Wonder Woman and Batman will recruit everyone, none of whom get a solo movie other than Wonder Woman, and do whatever it is they have to do as a team. It feels like the same set up that crippled Suicide Squad.
2016 saw 4 movies of a similar background, which is the protagonists fighting among themselves. Batman vs. Superman beat Captain America: Civil War by two months in March. The movie was critically panned and made people really uneasy for the other two films that would follow. Captain America: Civil War hit in early May with glowing reviews. It’s box office topped BVS, despite having the same budget. May ended with the panned X-Men: Apocalypse which didn’t even beat the box office of BVS. Some believed that Batman vs. Superman, coming out so close to two other movies with the same general concept, caused a lower box office for Civil War, and mad people far more critical of Apocalypse.
To make matters worse, the most panned film of the four was Suicide Squad, coming out in August with nothing really to show for it at all. However, by releasing these two movies in the same year, WB is able to show a profit between the two films somewhere north of a billion, which will guarantee they can keep the series going. X-Men seems less certain, despite Deadpool being a runaway hit and Logan looking to be exactly what that character needed. Bryan Singer has left the series, Hugh Jackman is retiring as Wolverine, and Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and James McAvoy all seem to be looking to leave. This changeover creates the climate for rebooting the series. And that’s where the studios have brought these beloved franchises: either boring audiences with mediocre or shitty attempts, overwhelming them with just sheer volume, or forcing them to suffer through reboots.
Dr. Strange Final Score: 4/5
Ultimately, this is less about the culture of comic book movies, and more about how did Dr. Strange do as a film. On its own, Dr. Strange was fantastic. The visuals will likely win an award or two, and Benedict Cumberbatch was a great addiction to the MCU. However, this movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is plenty of content around it to full grasp everything here. Because of that, it has a lot of work to make itself fit in with a larger universe.