Baby, please let me in. I can swear my hands are clean… Review of Dr Strange

People sometimes accuse me of being incapable of fun.  ‘Mark,’ they say with an exasperated look about them, ‘You need to go to a movie, switch off your brain, and just enjoy the ride.’  I’m too critical.  I look for meaning.  I want to know why we think the good guy is good and how punishment works.  I want my characters to represent something bigger, and my plots to explore some deeper question.

Dr Strange is a watery fairy-floss movie.  It feels a lot like an early draft and it takes forever to set up.  It is a film without substance and it doesn’t even make up for it by being an attractive film.

Benedict Cumberbatch has a weird voice and munted hands.  His munted hands mean that he can no longer be a brilliant, arrogant, brilliant, rude, and brilliant brain surgeon.  So he gives up on the brilliant stuff and hunts out some magic cure for his hands.  This takes him to the Orient and it is here that he meets an ancient Caucasian guru.  Cumberbatch joins this Caucasian Chalk Circle and learns how to use magic powers to defeat somebody who was using the same magic powers for evil.  The end.

If this sounds like a shallow description of the film then I have overstated the film’s depth.  Dr Strange discovers that he can master time.  The film shows us this by making it feel like the credits to this bloated carcass of a film might never arrive.

The film ought to have run like clockwork.  Dr Strange is arrogant and needs to learn humility… except he never really learns humility because there wouldn’t be enough time for the excruciatingly long CGI set pieces.  The Ancient One isn’t all that she seems… but we never really got to know how she seems because there’s not enough time for her to establish a consistent character due to the aforementioned CGI set pieces.  Dr Strange has a good friend Baron Mordo, and Mordo is the opposite of everything that Strange is… except we have to be told this three-quarters of the way through the film because there’s not enough time to establish the character on his own.

As a result, there’s way too much bullshit and not enough winding up of characters.  Rachel McAdams plays a sort of love interest for Cumberbatch, but any resolution to the issues between the two has been left out of the film.  He’s a complete scumbag to her, they end up in some dicey shenanigans, and then she vanishes from the plot so Cumberbatch can save the universe.

I think I’m tired of origin stories.  I don’t think I’d have cared if Dr Strange had just walked on set, fried some goblin, and said, ‘I’m Dr Strange and I do magic; let the plot commence!’  It’s the painful, slow, and clunky process of crushing his hands, having him fall into despair, and then seeking magic that I find inexcusable.  We’ve done this before.  We’ve done this better.

But here the flaws are glaringly obvious.  Dude has been capable of magic for all of about twenty minutes, yet he can rumble with the villain who is slaughtering the masters and can fly off to confront the cosmic being of pure evil.

And then blah, blah CGI effects.  Quite a big deal was made of the innovative way the director used finger tutting the weave spells in the air… except you can’t see them because there’s all this CGI crap obscuring the view.  Dr Strange was one of those stories where you just wish there was 90% less magic.  Spending a third of your run time explaining all the spells you’ll need for your final set piece is not an effective way to tell a story.

The very best magical stories have completely non-magical endings.  Think about The Dark Crystal.  The plot isn’t resolved by having the magic wizards recite the magic spell that fixes the plot: the hero sacrifices herself (she gets stabbed in the back by an ordinary knife) in order to make sure all the pieces of the plot are together at the right time.  Or Labyrinth.  After Muppet-fuelled shenanigan after shenanigan, what resolves the plot is her confronting him, face to face, and telling him to back off.  Magical plots need to have ordinary, human resolutions.

Dr Strange has nothing human about it.  It is a cold, empty film about nothing worth watching.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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