Pure Magic: A Review of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange”

Pure Magic: A Review of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” November 4, 2016



Need something to take your mind off the election?

I have just the thing.

I just got back from watching Marvel’s Doctor Strange. It is the goofiest and most genuinely fun film I have watched in years, the best Marvel movie since Thor. 

The inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch made his career playing narcissistic yet lovable intelligent skinny men. He’s in his element here as Doctor Stephen Strange, a self-absorbed world-famous brain surgeon who does not know not to text while speeding. The resulting car accident paralyzes his hands and leaves him depressed, penniless and desperate but still self-absorbed. Following a hot tip from a physical therapist, he finds his way to a cell of mystical sorcerers in Kathmandu who teach him magic,  astral projection, travel between alternate dimensions and other practices which would have driven my Charismatic family members into terrified hysterics. Doctor Strange finds himself protecting the world against a renegade sorcerer named Kaecilius, who looks a bit like Vladimir Putin with a French braid and who wants to give the whole earth over to an evil entity known as Dormammu from the Dark Dimension. Yes, his real name is Dormammu and he lives in the Dark Dimension. He takes himself very seriously. Strange’s only hope to defeat Dormammu lies in not only in sorcery, but also in his discovery of the value of humility, self-sacrifice and suffering on behalf of others.

But let’s be honest. You’re not going to watch this movie because of the Very Special Lesson about the value of humility, self-sacrifice and suffering on behalf of others. You’re going to watch this movie because it’s got Benedict Cumberbatch in it, and because the special effects are awesome. They are truly gorgeous, a kaleidoscope of color and perspective that make the ridiculous New Age mumbo jumbo look completely plausible. This is the first movie I’ve ever seen where it makes perfect sense to pay extra for the 3-D showing. For all I know, it may be the first film in history to make the 3-D effects an immersive and valuable part of the work of art as a whole, instead of an annoying gimmick.

Another pleasant surprise was Tilda Swinton’s performance as The Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme. Swinton gives a beautiful performance in that rarest of roles– a woman in a superhero film who is not eye candy but a serious character, holding her own and then some with all the men around her and yet managing not to be a trope. She steals every scene; I would have been perfectly happy to watch a film that was just about her character.

This does bring me to the uncomfortable topic of whitewashing. Tilda Swinton is a white woman, playing a white character whose origin is ambiguous (she’s mentioned to be “Celtic” at one point) who wears an Asian-looking outfit and teaches at an Asian-looking dojo in Kathmandu where all the extras are Asian, but only one of the main characters is– the sorcerer known as Master Mordo is black, the sorcerer known as Wong is Asian, and everyone else who gets a line is white. The made-up spirituality the Ancient One teaches is stated to be a worldwide phenomenon but borrows liberally from Asian religions. Of all the sorcerers shown practicing, all over the world, a disproportionate number of them seem to be white. And, of course, a white American sorcerer who’s new to the job saves all the other characters with his willingness to bend the rules (and his discovery of humility, self-sacrifice and suffering on behalf of others).  I can’t exactly blame the film for this; after all, it’s drawing on a comic book series that began in the 60s when every character was either white or a vicious racial stereotype, and when appropriation of bits of Asian religions by Westerners was the fashion. And the film is so tongue-in-cheek about the more cringeworthy elements of Dr. Strange’s origins that to me, the whole thing comes off as fun nonsense rather than offensive.

Since this is a Catholic blog, I also ought to preemptively address an objection that I know somebody is going to bring up– that Doctor Strange’s portrayal of preternatural phenomena is going to lure people into “the occult.” The same sort of people worried that Harry Potter was going to lure people into “the occult” and I’ve yet to find a single example of a person who was lured. Still, in the interest of caution, I issue the following warning to all of my readers: Doctor Stephen Strange is a fictional character who practices any number of esoteric New Age activities including astral projection, travel between dimensions, talking to ghosts and bargaining with a thing that looks a lot like the devil. You ought not to try them at home. Doctor Strange also speeds, texts while driving, plays trivia games while performing brain surgery, takes his mask off during another brain surgery in order to give the audience a look at his sexy cheekbones, insults people, throws a laptop, gets stabbed, manipulates the flow of time, and flies with the use of a funny red cape. You shouldn’t try those things at home either.

In short, Doctor Strange is a welcome bit of nonsense, an offbeat and visually beautiful fantasy which, in spite of a few slightly troubling elements, is well worth your time.

Doctor Strange is now available in digital and disc formats.

(Image: The official poster for Marvel’s Doctor Strange.)

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