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The stark, strange truth about origin stories …
or how i learned to stop worrying and love the eye of agamotto
When Doctor Strange — Marvel Studios’ 14th offering — landed in November 2016, some critics quickly decried the feature as essentially the same movie as Iron Man.
From a certain, albeit nearsighted, point of view, there are a few similarities. Rich White Guy? Check. Selfish, Self-Absorbed Genius? Checkeroonie. Horrible Accident That Leaves Our Jerk Antagonist in a Terrible Predicament? Chickity-check.
The outline of Stephen Strange’s hero’s journey certainly seems to have all the earmarks of Tony Stark’s. However, look past the outline and the stories quickly diverge, leading Dr. Strange into territory upon which Mr. Stark has yet to tread — humility.
When first we meet Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he is a surgical maestro easily identifying the release date of an obscure pop song as he performs delicate surgery. Almost immediately, he switches operating rooms — turning his nimble fingers on the removal of a bullet from a patient’s brain, which simultaneously embarrasses the doctor who nearly butchered the poor man for his organs and establishes just how amazing those hands are. (This is important later.) Stephen further establishes his self-assurance in conversations with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) — the requisite love interest and voice of compassion to counter Stephen’s aggrandized sense of worth.
On to shots of expensive watches, spinning in place to display their disturbing level of worth, a supercar and a tuxedo to really bring home the level on which Stephen operates (heh). Already the film distances itself from the bombast and desert setting of the first Iron Man film; instead of merely mentioning the lead’s wealth, we are invited into his home to ogle the vast riches of a rather vain and self-important man.
Stephen’s reckless speeding and cell phone use while barreling down the road to an award ceremony throws our hero for a loop … and off a cliff — straight into the surgical embrace of the doctor whom he had proven incompetent not hours earlier. Extensive, intensive and expensive procedures leave Stephen’s poor hands a mess — their former genius now reduced to flimsy digits incapable of the simplest tasks. Stripped of his wealth and livelihood by injury, Stephen is left a broken shell of his former stuffed-shirt self.
Just like Iron Man, right?
Only in place of a cave full of junk, a helpful genius assistant and enough ego to fuel a trip to Mars, Stephen unleashes powers of depression, lashing out and impotent rage. After sending Christine packing, Stephen isn’t on the cusp of a fantastic breakout sequence that’s full of explosions and escapes, but a sad montage of a broken man seeking the legendary Kamar-Taj because some construction worker told him that is where he’ll find his impossible cure.
One last desperate, impossible hope to repair his hands and dignity leads Stephen to wander about Tibet like a sad madman mumbling “Kamar-Taj” to any and all holy-looking men. Conveniently, this works! After a rescue from some would-be muggers by the always fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron … excuse me … Karl Mordo, the good doctor is introduced to the Ancient One. This is a bearded Asian man who, wait … sorry, a bald Celtic woman brought to life by Tilda Swinton (a casting decision that sparked no end of contention on its own) and who mocks Stephen’s inability to see beyond his limited perception.
This is when the movie gets fun, rocketing far and away from the grounded technology-based themes of Iron Man, the vast space-faring adventure of Guardians of the Galaxy or even the grandeur of Asgard into a visual cacophony of mystic madness not seen outside of a Burning Man vision quest.
Touching the hem of Eternity’s robe, Stephen — along with we, the audience — are catapulted screaming into a world of pure imagination, where shields and repulsor rays are rendered quaint and useless in the face of real unimaginable power. It’s here that Strange’s detractors whinge on about how Christopher Nolan did it first in Inception. But that does a massive disservice to the hallucinogenic roller-coaster ride of insanity onto which director Scott Derrickson drags us. Massive props to the visual effects teams for creating a sequence capable of reminding the audience that movies are, first and foremost, meant to be seen on the big screen.
Upon his return, Stephen falls to his knees and begs to understand, a position of obsequiousness Stark would never take. A short interlude of “The Master Rejects the Student” later and we get on with this Campbellian odyssey, replete with training montages and cheeky book theft. We delve more into the rules and ideas surrounding the mystic arts through character revelations about teacher’s pet Mordo, a student and unfailingly ardent supporter of the Ancient One. The Ancient One’s contributions to Stephen’s training are amusingly cruel and life-threatening, if ultimately effective. Her draconian methods bely a faith in Stephen’s eventual mastery of the mystic arts.
Speaking of book theft, I’ve completely ignored Mads Mikkelsen and his oft-modified eyes as Kaecilius, the villainous former follower of the Ancient One, whose ocular issues are trumped only by his egregious abuse of ancient tomes of power and beheading librarians. From his intercession on, Doctor Strange runs amok in mind-bending displays of mystical acumen and martial-arts parkour around the globe focused on the three (only three?) places that are keeping our world safe from Dormammu — an extra-dimensional being of ludicrous size and ability to whom Kaecilius has sold his soul. During the fracas, we are treated to the now obligatory Stan Lee cameo. Here, it contains a deep-cut visual pun involving Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, a clever nod to the heady psychedelic themes of the movie.
Where were we?
Ah, the heartbreaking betrayal of the trusted master. In a beautiful moment, Cumberbatch and Swinton exposition their way through the reveal that the Ancient One’s longevity is due to her use of energies from the forbidden Dark Dimension, home of Dormammu. This crushing revelation led Kaecilius to his path of evil and, when later revealed to him, also force the stalwart Karl Mordo down a similar road … because finding out that your boss has willingly compromised herself for the greater good should certainly break all of your previously held moral convictions and beliefs. While fans of the comics were awaiting on Mordo’s eventual heel turn, it’s a bit trite of Derrickson and co-writers C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts to expect that a minor breach of trust is enough to completely erode the convictions of two men. Baron Mordo originally was a stereotypical cur who lusted for power and poisoned the Ancient One hoping to become the Sorcerer Supreme. Cliché? Yes, but still a bit better than what the movie gave us.
Anyway, armed with the knowledge that the Ancient One cheated her way to longevity, Stephen borrows the art-deco McGuffin: the Eye of Agamotto. He decides that despite his training, breaking all the rules is the best way to defeat Kaecilius and his hench-people and undo the brutal murder of librarian Wong, played wonderfully by Benedict … uh, Wong. When that fails, Stephen breaks even more rules to trap Dormammu in the most brutal Groundhog Day homage ever committed to film (or digital media, for you persnickety types). It works … huzzah! The globe has been time-magiked back to normal, Kaecilius and his minions get their just desserts by being transformed into the Mindless Ones (an obscure reference for the master-level geeks) and all is well!
This leads us to the biggest point where this film diverges from Iron Man and ensures Stephen Strange isn’t some carbon copy of fan-favorite Tony Stark. Stephen is humbled by his cosmic experiences and sets aside an Infinity Stone at the end of his film, his journey leaving him a better person than we first found him. Iron Man ended with Tony proudly declaring his identity, having learned nothing more in his struggles to that point other than that wearing an indestructible war suit is really, really fun. Tony arguably still hasn’t learned anything from his struggles that have improved him as a hero or person, his decisions and explorations only serving to force the world and his friends into greater difficulties than had he just left well enough alone. Whereas in one film, Stephen at least learned … well, that there was so much more to learn and that he wasn’t the most important person in the room … or multiverse.
In short, Doctor Strange’s journey has opened the Marvel Cinematic Universe wide open to the sights, sounds and powers on the horizon that will lead to the upcoming Infinity War, an epic clash that will invariably lead our heroes through devastating losses as they encounter beings capable of crushing brash armored billionaires with little to no effort. In the face of such odds, the Avengers need the guidance of a hero whose ability and education has lead him to humility and an understanding of the energies arrayed against them. The MCU origin of Doctor Strange gives us just that, a hero that transcends his selfish ways in a tale diametrically opposed to the arc of Marvel’s breakthrough film.
Oh, and again: Those special effects were absolutely fabulous.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week as guest writer Dave Gutierrez discusses the further fracturing in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner
The Avengers (2012) — Craig McQuinn
Iron Man 3 (2013) — Rachael Derrick
Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Will Norris
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — Salem
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — Mitch Ringenberg
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) — Daniel Fidler & Evan Dossey
Ant-Man (2015) — Jeremy Cahnmann
Captain America: Civil War (2016) — John Derrick