Nuance is Where Now, Doctor Strange?

Dormammu! I have come to make a bargain!

Another season passes, and Marvel graces our screens once again with another film set in their cinematic universe!

Doctor Strange opened in theaters this past weekend, and Cole & Clarice hit the cinema for a super-early Sunday morning matinee (like the awesome nerds they are) so they could watch it and write down their feels about it.

The consensus? Well… we decided Doctor Strange is basically a mid 90s superhero/adventure film… except made in 2016, with the backing of a major studio, allowing for a massive visual effects budget. Seriously — this movie genuinely feels like it should have been made alongside something like The Shadow or The Phantom. But this one is chock full of modern FX Steroids. Unfortunately, that also means it ends up feeling like Cliches on Steroids: The Movie. It had little (to no) nuance in it, and offered no intriguing, fun or refreshing twists on any of its cliches and standard narrative beats.

So we’re going to break it down, and further discuss the lack of nuance in four main sections: Doctor Strange himself, The Villain, Mordo and The Visuals.

Standard warning: SPOILERS ABOUND BEYOND THIS POINT!

 

Doctor Stephen Strange    

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Cole: Okay, honest question time here: Am I meant to care about him by the end?

Clarice: I do believe that’s what they were going for, yes.

Cole: Yeah…well…I don’t. Yay he decided to save the world! Yay he has a sentient cape! Yay he learned magic super fast! He’s still a woe is me, privileged as fuck arrogant ass who shouldn’t have that kind of power at his disposal.

Clarice: Yes, he is. And I actually think they could have leaned into that idea harder. I.E. embrace him never ceasing to be an asshole. Sure he learns all this cool mystical magical stuff, but guess what??? He’s still a total dickweed! Because gaining mystical powers doesn’t necessarily fix that! The film sort of does this…? but also kinda doesn’t…? It feels like they struck a strange (ha!) middle-ground that makes it seem more wishy-washy characterization than distinct choice. 

Cole: And when the fuck does his change of heart from “not my problem” to “gonna totally save the world now” happen? I’m pretty sure the movie just switched gears on him not giving a shit to giving a shit in between scenes and expected viewers to just kinda roll with it?

Clarice: I find it odd that he has to switch gears at all! It felt strange (ha.) to me that he should even hit that Campbellian “refuse the call” moment. Honestly, I would’ve expected his arrogance would play directly into him being (refreshingly) 100% on board with dimensional-world-saving. I think it sits off the established character to not have Stephen’s ego be significantly stroked by finding out he’s super special/important and critical to saving the world and  dimensional whatnots. But hey! That’s probably because we’re working with simplistic cue words of “ego” and “arrogance,” not an actual fleshed out character…

Cole: Nope! Not a fleshed out character nor a fleshed out narrative. It was, just like the villain (we’ll be talking about him in just a second), as by the numbers as possible. I was literally sitting in the theatre going “And here’s his refusal of the call moment. And here’s him overcoming his fears. Oh! And look! We’re gonna lose the mentor.” SHOCKER.

 

The Villain

Cole: *YAAAAWNS*

Clarice: Do you know what I love in stories, Cole? I love when worlds are in peril because of a middle-aged white man’s existential crisis. *grump face*

Cole: Especially one who thinks he knows better than LITERALLY everyone about a dimension and entity most people know NOTHING about?

Clarice: “Hmmmm you are Sorcerer Supreme… who has been alive a very long time and learned many things…  and I have now learned this one piece of information… I KNOW MORE THAN YOU AND YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG AND I SHOULD MAKE THE DECISIONS FOR THE WORLD.”

Cole: He literally only reads the first part of the book and thinks his opinion on the whole thing is valid. He’s THAT dude.

Clarice: Except the film makes no real commentary on that fact! If they actively interrogated that as a concept, then maybe it could have been more interesting. But they ultimately just play Kaecilius (yes, in fact, he does have a name, though you’d be forgiven for never remembering it) as a straightforward villain. A straightforward, painfully bland villain… who does not deserve his zealot minions… and who has terrible hair. Oh gods the hair… 

Cole: Yup. By the numbers all the way. Come on, Marvel, you should be doing so much better by this point. Give us something interesting! Again: *YAAAAWNS*

 

Mordo

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Clarice: The more I think about his character, the angrier I get…

Cole: They almost had something interesting?

Clarice: They were so close to having a complex character!      

Cole: So close. He actually has an interesting and defensible point of view for most of the film. I liked the idea that Mordo needed Strange’s flexibility while Strange needs Mordo’s strength. I also liked the idea that Mordo, with his very rigid views on magic, literally cannot handle the film’s revelations about the nature of the Ancient One and the manner in which Strange saves the day.

Clarice: Sure. He’s rigid and largely humorless, with “an immovable spirit.” I do wish they didn’t portray it as such a broad-brushed “strength” though, and maybe specified it more specifically as “resolve” or “fortitude.” I.E. the idea that Mordo has ideals he strongly adheres to and follows through on them. It’s an appealing counter to Strange’s more fluctuating moods/opinions. Although… I’d also like to point out that someone can totally retain stubbornly immovable ideals and possess a sense of humor… or posses any other personality traits, really, beyond just the one… But then again we’ve been character paint-by-numbers thus far, so why not keep going!

Cole: I suppose they wouldn’t want to break a hot streak of bog standard cliches…

Clarice: It’s a pity too, since Chiwetel Ejiofor fucking SELLS every questionable line put in front of him. There were Mordo mini-speeches where I thought I might as well be watching an Oscar reel! … ya know, if not for the fact that the dialogue was mostly terrible… 

Cole: He really was trying super hard to make it work!

Clarice: By the time we hit the end of the film, ya know what? I like Mordo’s perspective. I like that somebody stands there, looks Stephen in the eyes, and says “uh, you’re fucking with nature, and there’s always consequences.” (Paraphrasing, of course.) Forestall and forestall, sure, but “the bill always comes due.” That’s an important perspective. And The Ancient One is correct — Strange needs to hear that shit, just as Mordo needs to hear Strange’s oppositional point of view. Mordo is the person least inclined to blindly ride alongside Stephen Strange’s ego and say so. There is the set-up for a legit complex, interesting frenemy relationship, founded on the clashing of personalities and philosophies amidst a grudging admiration (and hell, even distanced fondness). And then the bastards went and fucking ruined it with the post credit scene. RUINED IT.

Cole: They did. And that SUCKS because the idea that Mordo and Strange respect one another on a certain level but have ideological/philosophical views that sit in direct opposition of each other would have been a potentially interesting setup for future Doctor Strange films. But, nah, the film just dumps that idea into the garbage. Marvel goes, “Hey! We’ve got a character with a vastly different view of the world and the role of magic within said world, putting him in opposition with one of our heroes! Shall we nurture this philosophical difference to create a fascinating opposition between the two?” Also Marvel: “No, fuck it, let’s just cannonball him straight into lazy-ass villain territory, shall we?”

Clarice: He’s going to come after totally harmless Benjamin Bratt FOR NO REASON! Except EVILNESS!! What the fuck ever. *flips table* See?? I told you I was angry! Though you probably already gathered that from me grinding my teeth in the theater… 

Cole: Marvel is absolutely terrified of permanently putting any of their heroes on morally questionable ground.

Clarice: I think that’s a very good observation. It’s frustrating how routinely their villains in particular kick to ludicrous (sometimes nonsensical) territory out of pure necessity. They behave however poorly they need to in order to narratively justify heroes’ actions. I understand part of the appeal of superheroes stories is that it’s supposed to be good vs. evil on rather comfortingly simplistic lines. I get that. HOWEVER… Marvel has shown that it loves setting its characters down on morally grey roads. But then it never explores the road. They love entertaining notions of complexity… but only to a point. Once they reach the line where hard character work would be involved, they retreat. They’ve demonstrated little concept of follow-through. You don’t get credit for merely putting characters superficially on that road. You need to make something of it. Don’t put them there at all if you have zero intent of sending them down the path in any real way.

Cole: *cough cough* Civil War *cough*

Clarice: I believe there is a place for that traditional superhero formula of comforting simplicity. I really do! But that said, it would be nice to see something different out of these Marvel films (especially since they’re doing so many.) Frankly, I’m weary of them consistently settling for mere baseline competence when it comes to their storytelling. For fuck’s sake they’re not even trying to do anything more! “Eh at least it wasn’t terrible,” or “Eh it was enjoyable enough,” really IS NOT the bar we should be living at. *crankily shakes fist* Artistic complacency!

Cole: Agreed! Honestly, if someone asks me what I thought of Doctor Strange I would probably say: “It was enjoyable enough.” I love superhero films, particularly ones set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but I’m hitting a wall with them where, as much as I enjoy them, I can’t defend them as excellent. They basically, at this point, have MADE WITH THE MARVEL FORMULA stamped across the screen from the moment the film starts.

 

The Visuals

Cole: OKAY WE GET IT. YOU PUT YOUR BUDGET TOWARDS FLASHY SPECIAL EFFECTS. NOW CAN YOU PLEASE STOP HURTING MY EYES?!

Clarice: Ha. All of their eggs went into one basket. And this was the acid trip basket they put them in! 

Cole: They basically sunk a lot of money and time into four sequences: Opening fight between the Ancient One and Kaecilius, Strange’s first journey through the multiverse, the New York battle and Strange manipulating time/the dark dimension finale.

Clarice: And of all of those? I think the first one is the best one!

Cole: I actually really liked the opening fight. The special effects were impressive and visually striking but kept relatively simple so the action of the battle was still clean and fluid; easy to follow.

Clarice: It was cool! And then we get his ‘first journey’ which goes on too long. “This is cool” quickly transforms into “Is this sequence over yet? I get it!” I can appreciate all the artistry and time and effort that went into creating these sequences… but WOW does it feel unnecessarily extended. I think The Ancient One’s point was decidedly made sooner than when they actually ended it.

Cole: Then we hit the New York magical battle between Strange and Kaecilius. They’re clearly trying to maximize everything from the opening fight but the result is a fucking assault on the senses. There is so much going on, so much visual distraction that is utterly lacking in cohesion, that the chase and the fight is basically impossible to follow.

Clarice: It was pretty rough. Just WEIRD STUFF HAPPENING! on full blast. DO YOU SEE ALL OUR SHINY VISUAL EFFECTS THAT WE DUMPED ALL OUR MONEY AND EFFORT INTO???

Cole: I honestly don’t see the point of special effects, no matter how impressive they are, if they make it difficult for a viewer to follow the action of a sequence.

Clarice: Apparently this was really meant to be seen 3D. But boo on that, I say. 1) I feel nauseous just thinking about it and 2) If you’re telling me that the only way I’ll properly enjoy your movie is if I see the visual effects in 3D, you can forget it. 3D doesn’t fix your goddamn story or lazy characters. *cranky face*

 

Other Comments

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Cole: Okay. I don’t think we can write a review/article about this film without talking about the whitewashing and racism inherent in much of the film’s casting, and the subsequent controversy that has been the cornerstone of the the lead up to its premier.

Clarice: Oh wow yikes. Ok. Where to even begin with this?   

Cole: How about hard and fast? I’ll start! The Ancient One, a character that was Tibetan in the comics was recast as a white lady!

Clarice: Presumably to stop racism! … Except that a bunch of Asian actors were still cast to surround her most of the time… and still within a Nepalese setting.  

Cole: Any and all POC characters are sidekicks! Or without spoken lines!

Clarice: Wong has no story or character of his own beyond his relation to Strange! And Mordo — while initially possessing a bit more character — still essentially revolves around Stephen! And then he turns shitty and villainous!

Cole: And, honestly? We’re just scraping the surface here. There are a lot of problems inherent in the way this film did its casting. But, also honestly, we’re not the best qualified people to talk about that in any kind of depth (hint: we’re both super white!) but try this or this!

***

Cole: Doctor Strange also continued the long standing Marvel tradition of absolutely sucking when it comes to gender diversity in their films. As much as I love the idea of recasting the Ancient One as a woman that is not a free pass to have hardly any other female characters in the film (or, you know, whitewash the role – see above).  

Clarice: Tilda Swinton doth not single-handedly absolve thee.

Cole: No, she certainly does not.

Clarice: Speaking of… Cole, did you know Rachel McAdams was in this??

Cole: Say whaaaaaat?

Clarice: Yeah! She was the lady!

Cole: Oh! You mean the one who Bennybatch treated like crap but was still always there for him whenever he needed her?

Clarice: Yup. That was her! You probably didn’t notice because she is basically a prime example of a particular hetero male fantasy → “Uhhg I’m such an arrogant-ass dipshit who treats her like crap and doesn’t deserve her, but she’s still always there when I need her… uhhg.”

Cole: Yeah, whatever. Rachel McAdams deserves better. Straight boy nonsense.

***

Clarice: I have a clarifying question!

Cole: Go for it!

Clarice: Sooo… Dormammu’s universe is essentially a psychedelic blacklight nightclub, isn’t it? And basically he wants to expand it into another location? I interpreted that correctly, yes?

Cole: Yup. It’s a business venture. He just wants to own the biggest blacklight club franchise in the universe!

Clarice: Got it. That’s what I thought. That’s very entrepreneurial of him.  

***

Clarice: Another question! Does Marvel just have a Humor Ratio that is mandated for every one of their films at this point? Because that’s what it’s starting to feel like. Throughout Doctor Strange it seemed like all the quips and jokes were rather specifically shoehorned in at odd places as opposed to organically permeating the whole film.   

Cole: I hope that means they have someone with the job title Director of Humor Ratio Analysis and Computation.

Clarice: … fuck now I hope they do too. Can I also hope their name is Fillmore?

***

Cole: The Cape!

Clarice: The Cape!  

Cole: And adorable hot Chris Hemsworth!

Clarice: … he was not in a cape… But I nonetheless agree with your basic sentiment. 

Cole: He had an giant insta-refill beer mug!

Clarice: That he looked so adorably bemused by! PS I assume this means Cumbercape will be in Thor: Ragnarok…?

Cole: It sure seems like it…

Clarice: Is this because he just wanted to hang out with his buddy Hiddles?? … Nevermind! Don’t answer! I’m just going to pretend it is.

***

Clarice: Cole! I have one last thought! This movie is all about multiverse, right?

Cole: Yes. Yes, it is.

Clarice: Ok. So think about it… somewhere there must be a dimension in which this movie was rich and nuanced on top of being fun and bonkers, right?? And multiverse us would be writing a very different article! Isn’t that weird??  

Cole: Saint Olivia…please make it better.

 

Ranking of Marvel Films

Ok. This was inevitable. Are we about to arbitrarily, subjectively, judgmentally, and wholly unnecessarily rank Doctor Strange with the other MCU films? Of course we are! Have you read us at all??

**In cases of two films occupying one slot, it is literally due to the fact that we could not agree on precisely which came ‘before’ the other.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Avengers

Guardians of the Galaxy | Iron Man

Iron Man 3 | Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: Civil War

Thor

Doctor Strange

Ant-Man | Thor: The Dark World

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Iron Man 2

(We did not include The Incredible Hulk because neither of us have actually watched it.)

Oh, and lastly:

Farewell, Sunshine, Chippy, Snorkel and Viper. We hardly knew ye. (Yes, we named the four disposable minions who had no lines – Saint Wesley watch over them.)