I’ll say this much — Marvel Studios’ latest mega-blockbuster, Doctor Strange, certainly is an amazing feast for the eyes. From the amazing opening fight sequence to the trippy other-dimensional mystical mindscapes peppered throughout the film, director Scott Derrickson (who also co-wrote the script along with John Spaihts and the erudite-sounding C. Robert Cargill) pulls out all the stops to “wow” you and succeeds in his goal admirably. In fact, if there’s ever been a flick that you need to see in 3-DD, Imax, and all that shit, it’s this one.
Here’s the rub, though : if you’ve seen all, some, or even just one of Marvel’s other cinematic products, then you really don’t “need” to see this thing at all.
By all rights, of course, this movie (which only came out two weeks ago, but I’m slapping my “Late To The Party” header on it anyway since most people see these on opening weekend and I didn’t get a chance to catch it until last night) sounded like it might represent the best chance for the so-called MCU to break from its well-established (and, admittedly, quite financially successful) mold : the character of Stephen Strange himself, a semi-tragic figure brought low by his own hubris when the wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon’s reckless driving leads to a car accident that renders his hands useless and sets him off on a quest to heal himself by mystical means, is arguably the purest distillation of the type of “morality play” his creator, Steve Ditko (sorry, Stan, I don’t care what the studio bosses say, you don’t get any credit for this one from me) excelled at during his 1960s Marvel period, and his signature psychedelic visual style is well-represented in the work of Derrickson’s CGI crew, but there’s definitely quite a bit lost in the translation from newsprint to celluloid here. I’ll grant you that this film isn’t nearly the glorified paean to war and militarism that the Avengers and Captain America flicks are, but in just about every other respect it follows the worn and tired formula of its stablemates downright slavishly : morally and ethically dubious protagonist (in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange) goes through a long-form origin story that results in him becoming a marginally better person after attaining super-powers at the feet of a more experienced master (Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One); he accrues a comic-relief sidekick (Benedict Wong’s — well, Wong), as well as one who might be a potential future rival (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo), along the way; principal bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius) is a former pupil of aforementioned master gone rogue; main bad guy (Dormammu) is a computer-generated special effect; nominal love interest (Amy McAdams’ Christine Palmer) is essentially treated like a doormat but sticks by her guy anyway; you know the drill. In fact, you know it by heart at this point.
All of which means that a darn fine cast is wasted on this lifeless, assembly-line drivel (hell, you can even set your watch by the intervals between jokes — which largely fall flat this time out — in these things). Cumberbatch essentially plays Strange as Tony Stark in a magic red cloak; Ejiofor buries his not-inconsiderable talents under a mask of dour, one-dimensional earnestness; McAdams suffers through her lines as surely as her character suffers through life as a plot device for her male counterpart; Swinton (whose casting was controversial among stodgy and conservative comics fans due to the fact that the “real” Ancient One is both Asian and male) shows some heart but the damn thing is that her role would be better served if she were more distant and blase a la David Carridine; Mikkelsen seems like a low-rent stand-in for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki; yadda, yadda, etc., etc.
In many ways, in fact, the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios has never been made more plain than it is here — after all, if they can take a fundamentally different premise than that which we see in their other films and still turn it into big-budget, dime-a-dozen, interchangeable cinematic fare, then it becomes depressingly clear that not only are they not interested in trying anything fundamentally different, they more than likely simply don’t even know how to at this point.
Not that audiences seem to care, mind you. “More of the same” still sells, and unless and until one of these things tanks at the box office, nothing’s gonna change, and the “Big-Budget-TV-Movie” ethos that permeates the MCU will hold firm. When it comes to the bottom line, that makes plenty of sense — but sooner or later familiarity breeds contempt, and when the bottom finally falls out on the super-hero craze, I predict it’s gonna fall out hard. As in, end-of-disco hard. People aren’t just gonna stop seeing this stuff, they’re gonna be too embarrassed to admit they ever even liked it. And when that day comes, whether it’s in one year or ten, Marvel will have only themselves to blame. They crank out enough films to be able to do something at least a little bit adventurous and “outside the box” once in awhile. They can afford to throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. But they don’t. Won’t. Can’t. And now it’s gotten to the point where I’m a whole lot less lonely than I used to be when it comes to griping about the utter sameness of their films. The chorus of groaners is still small, true, but it’s getting louder. And larger. And sooner or later, the powers that be might want to pay attention.
They’d better start paying attention to the wretched politics of their films, as well. Women are props consigned to do little beyond making the men around them more caring and more human. Racial and ethnic minorities are consigned to “second-fiddle” roles. Gays and lesbians simply don’t exist. Might always makes right. And, perhaps most troublesome in the “Age Of Trump,” rich people — even the most noxious, self-centered, asinine, egomaniacal ones — are worthy of being granted super-powers and become better people once they attain those powers. Why they’re not called to the carpet more often for these clear, present, and nauseating themes remains a mystery to me, but whenever I bitch about ’em, the most common whitewashing excuse I hear from folks — even he most purportedly “liberal” viewers — is that I’m “overthinking” things. Well, I call bullshit on that. Tony Stark — and now Stephen Strange — have gone a long way toward normalizing this idea that overtly asshole-ish, obscenely wealthy narcissists can be heroes, and look where that’s gotten us.
Am I blaming Marvel, then, for the rise of our Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief? No (although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter was a major Trump donor and supporter), but in much the same way that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (whose author, William Peter Blatty, was a psychological warfare operative in Vietnam) preceded the ludicrous “Satanic Panic” that followed in their wake about a decade later, and the spate of ‘Nam flicks in the 1980s that were, at least on a surface level, critical of that war helped numb audiences to the notion of endless, un-winnable conflicts that would start up again in earnest with “Gulf War I” in 1990 and continue, on and off, for the next three decades, these flicks do their part to contribute to the cultural zeitgeist that makes certain once-unpalatable notions in the real world very palatable indeed. In that respect, then, Marvel movies may be graduating from being simply dull and predictable to being downright dangerous. I hope, of course, that this is just pure batshit paranoia on my part — I fear, however, that it’s anything but.