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If Christopher Nolan hadn’t proven you can press against the boundaries of believability, comfort, and comprehension in a blockbuster and still make a ton of money, it’s very likely that Doctor Strange, the newest nipple on the udder of the Marvel Cinematic Universe cash cow, would not have been allowed to be half as strange as its name half-promises.
But, in the end, though Doctor Strange boasts gorgeously well-rendered fractal vistas of galactic proportion and admirable detail, it doesn’t challenge the boundaries of the modern imagination nearly as much as it seems to want. In the end, it pushes forward the tired and unchallenging vagaries our culture has adopted to escape rather than explore the riddles of reality.
Doctor Strange Was Fun
Before I get into all that, though, I must say that the movie was still a good bit of fun. Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual, nailed the part of the brilliant egotist who turns out to have a heart of gold. Just imagine Doctor Strange as psychedelic Sherlock with worse jokes, and you’ve basically nailed it. Tilda Swinton whispered new life into the “aged muse of enlightenment” type in her role as the
Androgynous Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme. (I hope Taco Bell is trying to license a Doctor Strange-themed burrito with that name.) The visuals thrill the eye, especially in the beginning while they’re still fresh. And the plot, as far as boilerplate Hero’s Journey origin stories go, holds a couple more surprises than I had expected.
So, bottom line: if you love the MCU, you’ll be getting more of what you already love, with a tiny extra helping of lightly salted mind-pretzels served in a Premium Artisanal Auteur™ filmcraft bowl polished of its rough edges for your safety and enjoyment.
More than any Marvel movie before it, Doctor Strange prompted me to notice that what has most contributed to the MCU’s massive success has also held it back from taking real risks. Doctor Strange is fun, but it could have been so much more. You might be spellbound by the visuals, but this movie was hidebound by blockbuster conventions and popular expectations. It could never have been the movie I wanted it to be, but it is a better movie than it needed to be. As Will Leitch writes in his review for the New Republic:
Doctor Strange is interesting enough on his own to carry his own film, and well-played enough to keep us compelled throughout. And he even exists in a movie world that, briefly, is willing to get a little bit inventive in a way that Marvel rarely dares anymore. There is not much sense of danger or risk in Doctor Strange, but there probably never could have been. Within the restraints the filmmakers were under, they did the most they could.
I agree. If the MCU didn’t exist, Doctor Strange (and Ant-Man for that matter) would have been better movies. They would have been free to take real risks and have real stakes. But if the MCU didn’t exist, these movies probably wouldn’t have been made in the first place. So there’s that.
Mysticism and Magic in Doctor Strange
I might as well get this out of the way now, since Doctor Strange has been criticized by some Christians as a friendly-faced introduction to the occult and black magic. I have already written elsewhere on the issue of magic and the occult in fiction (specifically concerning Harry Potter), but the main idea applies here as well. To keep things brief, I’ll get to the punchline, quoting myself who then quoted C. S. Lewis (Quote-ception!):
Consider that a farmer from 500 years ago, were he to be dropped into the middle of our contemporary industrialized society, would really have no framework to understand our science. His best explanation for most of it (and if we’re honest, we feel this way sometimes too) is that it is magic. Self-propelled machines, iPads/Pods, airplanes, electricity in every home, screens broadcasting ultra-realistic moving images from across the world, wireless internet… We live in a time when technology has vastly outstripped our ability to comprehend its function. But the Bible does not condemn the manipulation of natural forces, per se, since the dominion of the natural world is our natural domain. For me, Harry Potter is a world where magic has no reference to the supernatural. I accept it within Rowling’s framework as a natural force of her imaginary universe. Sorcery is, in that world, operating exactly as science does in ours. There are evil scientists and good ones, but the natural forces are not to blame either way.
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, said:
“There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique.”
When it comes to magic in fiction, Christians have given Narnia and Middle Earth an unmitigated pass, but have somehow managed to reject Harry Potter and now Doctor Strange with an equal lack of nuance. This seems like a pretty classic case of special pleading.
It’s especially odd to me that Christians have rejected Doctor Strange for being “psychedelic” or “mystical” (as if those were in themselves necessarily bad things), when Doctor Strange holds the distinction at this point of being the only movie in the MCU that rejects a purely materialist explanation for reality. It’s odd that Christians have endorsed (or ignored) Marvel’s materialism and Middle Earth’s magic, but they have rejected the potentially corrective metaphysical elements of Doctor Strange as “occultic.” Alrighty then.
Beyond this, Doctor Strange’s director, Scott Derrickson, is an outspoken Christian. The fingerprints of that belief definitely show up on this movie, though always rather superficially. In the end, Doctor Strange does not falter for including mystical or magical elements. It falters because it skates over those elements in the vaguest and most harmless terms, thus restraining the most interesting and edifying possibilities of Marvel’s nascent multiversal dualism.
Not Quite Strange Enough
There’s a moment near the beginning of Doctor Strange where some fairly typical sounding 60s guitar rock starts playing. Because a younger version of me was obsessed with psychedelia, I immediately recognized the opening licks of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” from Floyd’s debut, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. If you listen to only the first forty-five seconds of that 10-minute instrumental, you have no idea how uncomfortably cacophonous and unsettled it eventually gets. In Doctor Strange, the track is cut off before it can offend the conservative sensibilities of popular audiences, while its inclusion tips the hat, and perhaps the cards (for those “in the know”), to the psychedelic. There’s another tip of the hat to Pink Floyd in Giacchino’s score in the end credits, as pointed out by The Guardian.
There are a few other references to psychedelia as well: There is Stan Lee’s (at this point assumed) cameo, where he scoffs at a copy of Aldous Huxley’s paean to hallucinogens, The Doors of Perception (from which The Doors derived their name). And when Stephen Strange first sees the psychedelic weirdness of the Multiverse (wherein, for instance, hands grow from fingers on hands growing from fingers ad infinitum), he asks the Ancient One, “What’s in that tea? Psilocybin? LSD?”
In a nutshell, these safe references to the “trippy” highlight my main problem with Doctor Strange: it’s willing to pay homage to the aesthetic of having your mind blown, but it’s not willing or able to actually blow your mind.
Before you think I’m recommending going further down the hallucinogenic rabbit hole: I’m not. No one really knows exactly how hallucinogens work, but my best guess is that they limit (not augment) one’s perceptive apparatus to such a great degree that normal experience becomes overwhelming. That’s one way to blow or stretch your mind (or at least to think you have until you’re sober again).
The other way is to elevate your experience beyond your current capacities of perception. The best mind-bending movies have a psychedelic feel not so much because they copy the drug-fueled visual aesthetic of the 60s, but because their narrative folds (which the visuals follow) bury you in complex and paradoxical philosophical and moral dilemmas for which your daily perceptive apparatus comes up inadequate. In order to grow, you have to be made to feel inadequate.
#DoctorStrange is willing to pay homage to having your mind blown, but it's not willing to blow your mind.—@MetaMinkoff
An Insufficient Challenge to Materialism
Doctor Strange can’t afford (literally) to make its audience feel inadequate. Mordo might tell Strange to forget everything he thinks he knows, but what you as an audience member think you know is never challenged, but in the abstract. Doctor Strange is, naturally, a movie, and as a movie, it talks most effectively through what it shows or doesn’t show. The danger of trying to image the invisible is that you run the risk of distorting or overwriting invisible realities. Like black holes, invisible truths are best explored for their effects—their event horizons. One of the reasons why movies like Inception or 2001: A Space Odyssey work is because their moral, philosophical, personal, and narrative content is allowed to frame and shape their visible explorations, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, Doctor Strange utilized the pioneering visuals of its fantastical forebears to create the visual illusion of depth, but it always feels a little like a decent homage to better movies.
Doctor Strange’s (too-frequent) expositions on the realm of the spirit, for all their purported challenge to materialism, frame themselves within the predictable and sensible metrics of the tangible world. The Ancient One talks about spells as “programs.” The world of magic must still conform to “natural law,” or the magician will have to pay the consequences. Even when buildings are collapsing in on themselves like the closing of some cosmic mise en abyme pop-up book, characters are still running and falling within space quite naturally according to gravity. Astral beings of pure spirit still punch each other in the astral faces and choke each other’s astral throats to fight in the spiritual dimension. The only difference between a spear made of dimensional energy and one made of glass or steel is all in how it looks, not in how it actually works. People stabbed by inter-dimensional instantiations of mentalized energy still get laid on regular old gurneys to go to regular old surgery rooms where regular old doctors patch them up. None of the characters within the Mandelbrot kaleidoscope of fractalized perception seem all that touched by the bending of time and matter. They, like the audience, are left safely within a realm that looks pretty weird, for sure, but it won’t change or challenge you. There is no “there is no spoon” moment.
The only things that pass for paradox in Doctor Strange could just as easily be called plot holes. When you cut through the visuals to what lies underneath, you realize that Doctor Strange merely tacks on a largely unnecessary spiritual dimension to the unaltered material dimension. Doctor Strange is visual without vision. Its worldview is overdetermined, in other words. The spiritual dimension never seems to transform anything in the visible one, but is rather governed by an analogy of the tangible. One wonders, with Occam, whether the spiritual dimension needs even be mentioned in Doctor Strange at all.
Short on Character Development
The emphasis on eye-tricking aesthetics over mind-bending philosophical or personal exploration is most apparent in the incompleteness of Strange’s character arc. The final shortcoming of Doctor Strange is Doctor Strange himself, who undergoes more a change of profession than a change of perception. Benedict Cumberbatch is not at fault for this as much as the writers. His transition from egotist to altruist failed to convince me, partially (again) because the movie would not allow itself to make me uncomfortable.
For example, the final confrontation between Doctor Strange and the timeless dark lord Dormammu is at the same time the most promising element of the plot and its most frustrating. Doctor Strange brings time with him into the timeless realm of Dormammu, allowing Strange to effectively hold Dormammu hostage in an infinite loop of recurrence. In this loop, Dormammu kills Strange countless times, only to find Strange reappearing time and time again ready “to bargain.” This plot device, quite brilliant in itself, came up short in the execution.
What the movie needed to do here was slow down—to make the audience feel the weariness and unending tedium and pain of the loop. Instead, it delivers a quick-cut montage of Strange’s many deaths played for almost comedic effect. The movie never explores or evokes the pain Strange must have felt in dying over and over again, so it misses the opportunity to develop Strange’s character in the crucible of suffering. Like the recurring (at this point almost analgesic) cosmic peril the earth keeps experiencing within the MCU, Strange’s multiple deaths don’t seem to contain any real pathos or risk.
Doctor Strange ranks high on visuals but low on narrative depth and character development. It’s a Marvel movie, in other words. Which is a shame. It leaves the very nature of its fractal landscapes unexplored. Fractals, like images in opposing mirrors, recur infinitely in loops of self-referentiality. Human perception, left to its own devices, is similarly self-referential. It is incapable of breaking the loop without outside assistance (revelation). In a movie about an egotist learning to understand himself more clearly by doing good for others, one would think a marriage between inescapable fractal visuals and futile introspection would be quite natural. But this is never explored.
Perhaps part of the reason for this: Doctor Strange really isn’t willing to point to anything beyond inherent human capacity and the limitations of human perception. One will notice that the only realm that’s mentioned “beyond time” is a dark dimension of ravenous unending hunger and death. This dimension stands in for hell perhaps, just as Dormammu (with whom Strange makes a “bargain”) stands in for Satan. But, in Doctor Strange’s multiverse of “infinite impossibilities,” is there not even one dimension of infinite light beyond time? In the battle against ageless evil, the movie gives Doctor Strange only two options: he can access the goodness within himself—the “so much goodness within” the Ancient One sees. Or, like the Ancient One herself, he can “break natural law” and/or draw from the dark dimension in order to fight it. He can either save himself by acts of altruism or cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub.
No. The actual world is much larger than this. For a movie that purports to expand our imagination and challenge the materialist status quo, its cosmology comes off rather beggarly in the end. As Hamlet tells his materialist friend, Horatio, I will tell Doctor Strange: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”