Posted Saturday afternoon, November 19, 2016.
Among other things, he wears the cape well, although sometimes it seems to be the case that the cape is wearing him. Benedict Cumberbatch in the role he seems to have been born to play, Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, in the latest Marvel Studio’s Avengers franchise, Doctor Strange.
Doctor Strange opens with a dazzling fight scene that raises a question.
Why do they need Doctor Strange?
They being a brother and sisterhood of sorcerers who protect the earth from the depredations of evil invaders from other dimensions. At the moment though, their fight is with a band of renegade sorcerers known as the Zealots who have gone over to the dark side and are putting their considerable magic powers to work towards bringing about world destruction. They’re led by a Luciferian fallen angel called Kaecilius whose evil plan is to deliver earth to a world-devouring monster named Dormammu in exchange for eternal life.
This makes the Zealots sound like shades of the Sith and Kaecilius like Darth Vader...or Voldemort or Saurumon. But stories of magicians seduced by their own power or by the temptation to increase it and of heroes who through pride or some other tragic flaw turn into villains go back centuries, past Vader and Voldemort and Saurumon, past Faust, past Lucifer himself. Kaecilius, however, played with grim and sardonic charm by Mads Mikkelson, is in a way more formidable than the once and future Anakin Skywalker and the former Tom Riddle, in still showing more than vestiges of the hero he once was or at any rate could have been, and he and his followers put up quite a fight.
They don’t win but they get away with the a page they’ve stolen from a book in the good sorcerers’ library that---if they’re able to decipher it---will give Kaecelius the spell he needs to conjure up Dormammu.
Getting away is no easy matter because the good sorcerers are led by a millennia-old Celtic priestess known as the Ancient One and when she shows up the Zealots are immediately over-matched. At one point in the fight, the Ancient One finds herself confronting Kaecelius and his most dangerous henchpersons all by herself and that almost even things up for the Zealots.
The Ancient One is played by Tilda Swinton but we can’t see it’s her at first because she appears in a hooded green and gold robe that pretty much swaddles the stunt double handling most of the fighting, leaping, in the air spinning, and magical swordplay. But we know it’s her. We can imagine her inside the robes and cheer Swinton for her imagined awesomeness.That awesomeness informs the rest of her performance in which she mostly plays the Ancient One as mild-mannered, modest, restrained, cheerful, and at time even winsome, easily flustered, with an almost girlish bashfulness. The steel inside, however, is never in doubt, of course. But something else is and it gives her a sinisterness despite her simplicity.
That comes later. In the opening, she’s all steel. And that’s part of what raises the question, why do they---why does she---need Doctor Strange?
After the Zealots get away, it’s clear the Ancient One and her order can use a bit of help. So that seems to answer the question for now.
But when we meet Stephen Strange, the question is brought up with a new emphasis. Why do they need Stephen Strange to be that help? Because he’s nobody’s idea of a hero, let alone a savior. Nobody’s but his own, that is.
Strange is arrogant, self-centered, vain, self-indulgent---but everything he indulges in is an indulgence of his vanity. Whatever he does, including saving lives on the operating table, he does to show off to himself. “I’m so wonderful. No wonder I enjoy being me.” He’s not a bad person in the sense that he doesn’t go out of his way to hurt others. In fact, by some measures, he’s not just a good guy, he’s a great guy. Fun to be around, fun and satisfying to work for and with---provided you don’t get the idea you’re anywhere near his equal in the operating room---and a world champion neurosurgeon who routinely saves lives other doctors have despaired of. People admire and celebrate him. Actually, they’re bedazzled by him, although not everyone falls under his spell, and it appears that only one person has managed to actually love him.
Strange is by most measures obnoxious, but in the person of Benedict Cumberbatch he’s more than charming enough to distract us from his obnoxiousness, he is bedazzling. He makes us like him for it, it being both being so charming in his obnoxiousness and bedazzling us into not caring he’s obnoxious. We know he has to change. We expect that he will change or there’ll probably be no movie---although this a Marvel movie and the hero’s spiritual growth isn’t a given. Tony Stark becomes a hero but, as Oliver Mannion has observed, he doesn’t change. That’s the point of the Iron Man chapters of The Avengers franchise and the root of the tragedy at its center. Tony decides he’s Iron Man but Iron Man is the heroic character. Tony Stark remains the same vain, flip, egotistical, self-centered showoff he always was. So it’s possible Stephen Strange can go right on being Stephen Strange only with actual magical powers instead of seemingly magical surgical skills. Doesn’t matter while we’re waiting for it to go either way, though. While we’re waiting, it’s just plain fun to watch Cumberbatch having fun being Strange having fun being Strange, obnoxious as he is.
But the difference between Tony Stark and Stephen Strange is that Tony has a conscience. If Strange has one, he’s very, very good at ignoring it.
Of course change does come and it’s practically instantaneous. It’s not, however, immediately for the better.
Indulging himself on his way to another evening of self-indulgence, Strange has a car accident in which both his hands are crushed. The resulting nerve damage is so extensive that there’s no chance he’ll ever be able to wield a scalpel again.
His career as a world champion neurosurgeon is over and with it, he thinks, not just his professional life but his whole life. With the loss of his hands as instruments of his profession comes a loss of his sense of himself. He stops being Stephen Strange. He becomes...nobody.
Suddenly there’s no one there.
All that’s left of him is the vanity and the self-doubt and insecurity that were always behind it with the addition of a very unattractive dose of self-pity.
In effect, less than a third of the way in, the movie kills off its main character. The next step of the story is to show us who---what new character---is going to replace him. This takes a little while.
In his desperation after the accident, it doesn’t cross his mind that he’s still a doctor and there other specialties than neurosurgery where he could put his knowledge and other skills to work. Only one kind of doctor matters to him and there’s only one of that kind. Stephen Strange, the world’s most brilliant, successful, and famous practitioner of the world’s most difficult profession. His sense of self is tied up in being not doing. When he can’t be that Stephen Strange, he can’t do anything because he doesn’t think there’s anything else worth doing, and so he might as well not exist. He ceases to exist.
He becomes a lost soul wandering his own private Purgatory.
Of course, Purgatory is a mountain to ascend, and eventually Strange literally climbs a mountain or up into the mountains at any rate: The Himalayas where he arrives on the unimposing doorstep of the Ancient One.
What follows from this point in the origin story of Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts are some rather standard scenes of the education of an apprentice hero. Standard except for the humor. Most of the scenes of Strange learning to become a hero and to develop and master his new superpowers are played for laughs or, played with laughs, with plenty of jokes, verbal and visual, and delightfully comic touches by Cumberbatch---who if you’re a fan of Sherlock you’ll know is terrific at tossing off one-liners as if that’s the way geniuses naturally converse---Swinton, whose delivery is wry and droll and, like I said, somewhat bashful---she makes herself blush at her own wit---and the hilariously dead-pan Benedict Wong as the order’s head librarian whose name is, as it happens, Wong.
Head librarian, by the way, is akin to being chief enforcer.
Something else makes this origin story different from the standard. Origin stories generally don’t focus on the hero’s needing a personality transplant.
They're usually all business: Here’s how so and so got his or her powers. Now on with our story.
Just sticking with the other origin stories within the Avengers series, the hero’s psychological and spiritual growth isn’t as much of an issue in the first Iron Man, the first Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, or Ant-Man. Scott Lang has had his change of heart before Ant-Man begins, that’s part of why Hank Pym recruits him to be Ant-Man, and his psychological and spiritual challenge is to prove he’s up to the task of being a superhero. Steve Rogers is already Captain America in his heart, head, and soul, which is why the super-soldier serum works on him. Thor simply needs a lesson in humility. Tony Stark, like I said Oliver Mannion says, doesn’t really change at all.
Doctor Strange’s origin story serves the plot not by simply introducing us to the superhero but by helping to answer that question I posited at the top of the post: why this particular hero is needed at this particular moment. He can only save the day by being who he is, which isn’t only a matter of acquiring his powers. That he’ll get his powers is a given. So much so that the filmmakers feel free to treat that part of the origin mostly as comedy, like I said. He has to become who he is. And whether Strange will change psychologically is the serious matter.
Of course, he does.
But there’s no one special moment when he sees the light. There’s a moment when he realizes he has changed but it’s in the middle of other things that are claiming his attention and the moment passes quickly. Doctor Strange and Doctor Strange go on as if the transformation is not worth remarking on, and to Strange, it wouldn’t be. He is not that Doctor Strange and doesn’t miss being him in the least. Except that part of him that was in love with a fellow doctor, played by Rachel McAdams, and I’ll get to her in a little bit.
As if you haven’t guessed, I think Cumberbatch is terrific as Doctor Strange. It’s a part he was born to play and he’s been rehearsing it for the past several years on Sherlock. He manages the complete personality change with aplomb, naturally, but it includes a physical change that comes without anything more than a slight change of expression---unless you count the touches of white hair at his temples. All the boyishness that’s the basis of his charm at the beginning simply vanishes and with it that Stephen Strange. The Doctor Strange who takes his place is imposingly adult, no longer self-involved and self-indulgent but self-contained and totally self-controlled, dashing rather than merely charming, much more handsome, and...slightly sinister, as you would expect a good master of the occult would be.
He’s also supremely self-confident, which is why when he meets another superhero late into the movie, one in whose company even other superheroes might feel daunted, he’s coolly unimpressed. That other hero is equally unimpressed by Strange which seems to be why they hit it off.
[Editor's note: I said that meeting occurs late in the movie. Technically, it comes after the movie proper. It's the now Marvel movies standard mid-credits scene, so as fans don't have to be told, stay for the credits. All of them. There's another one at the very end.]
Swinton, too, I think is terrific. She’s always come across on screen as a being from another planet if not another dimension, which of course helps in playing a sorcerer supreme. Benedict Wong, as I mentioned, is hilarious but not in any way that undercuts his formidability as the character who will go on to be Doctor Strange’s right hand man.
Mads Mikkelson is given limited scope as Kaecilius, showing up now and again mainly either to remind us that there’s an evil plot unfolding or to get into another fight with our heroes. In either case, he’s in a grim mood, as you’d expect of a villain who’s gone over to the dark side and is now bent on world destruction. But his grimness has shadings and nuances, and in addition to being grimly charming he gets to be grimly funny.
There’s a funny scene in which Kaecelius and Strange face off for the first time and Strange’s introducing himself leads into an Abbott and Costello-esque exchange with Mikkelson playing it so straight that it’s hard to tell if Kaecilius is deliberately being a wiseguy or is genuinely without a clue. Mikkelson give Kaecilus a slight and enigmatic smile that makes him hard to read throughout. He may be enjoying playing around with magic or being evil or he may simply be enjoying the thrill of being on an adventure and it doesn’t matter what side he’s on or what his goals are, at the moment he’s just having fun. Whatever the reason for it, the smile and the note of humor in his voice humanize him. That is, they let us see that he was once humane if not good. It’s the vestige of the hero he once was or might have been.
Now as for McAdams…
It’s interesting that even though Marvel Studios has yet to introduce a female superhero, their leading ladies are all heroines in their own rights, not to mention independent, highly competent, highly intelligent people who don’t need their superheroic love interests to do their jobs for them. Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, Jane Foster, and Hope Van Dyne can get along fine without Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Ant-Man, thank you. Most of the time, at any rate. Pepper Potts does fall into the role of Damsel in Distress in Iron Man 3. McAdams’ Christine Palmer is even less defined by her relationship with the male hero than the others.
To be fair to them, though, Christine’s relationship with Stephen Strange---the heroic Stephen Strange---is yet to be defined. Her romantic entanglement was with the first version of Strange and that ended before the movie begins. So she’s not the love interest so much as the former and maybe future love but right now very good but not uncritical friend interest.
Consequently, McAdams mostly has to play concerned, exasperated, and infuriated but she does get to be funny in an extended sequence in which she has to perform emergency surgery on Strange’s wounded and dying body while his astral form keeps popping in and out of sight as he alternates between giving her surgical advice she doesn’t need and fights off Kaecilius’ strongest and deadliest henchman who is also popping in and out of sight as he astral projects himself too.
McAdams is a delight as she has Christine, who has no idea what is going on, determinedly keeping her focus on the job of keeping her patient alive and trying not to lose her temper at Strange’s constant interruptions while barely holding herself together instead of freaking out at the weirdnesses flying and swooping in and out of view around her.
The only one of the movie’s leads who doesn’t have much of a chance to be funny is Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Mordo, the Ancient One’s chief lieutenant and eventually Strange’s strong right arm. Ejiofr’s primary job here is to be questioning and over-earnest as the story sets things up for Mordo’s likely more prominent role in the expected sequels and other movies in the Avengers franchise. But he does get to toss off a witty line or two now and again.
Doctor Strange is a comedy. Not exactly in the same vein as Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. Ant-Man is a comic heist movie and Guardians a comic pirate movie. Doctor Strange is a fairly straight-forward sword and sorcery adventure in the tradition of Lord of the Rings and, actually, Star Wars. There’s just more emphasis on the sorcery. But it’s like Ant-Man and Guardians in having a comic as opposed to a tragic hero. The comic hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Comic heroes are redemptive figures. They don’t just save the day. They put things back together. Cap and Tony are tragic heroes, not least because their fates are tied together in a way that pulls Cap down more than it lifts Tony up. His friendship with Cap makes Tony a better man. But not enough better. And Tony only exacerbates Cap’s central problem. He’s a hero out of his time. All that he stood for in 1943 has become corny, simplistic, more the target for irony than the source of inspiration. On top of his loneliness, this has crippled him with self-doubt that at times on crosses the spiritual boundary into self-loathing and led him to the brink of despair. That, in turn, limits his ability to put things back together on a personal, intimate scale.
He can’t bring about happy endings for others. And he’s never had the physical power to put things back together on a larger scale.
Tony has that power. We’ve seen him use it time and again. But he’s nearly as useless bringing about personal happy endings. In fact, he goes Cap one better---or one worse. He’s destructive on the personal level. Cap has at least helped Nat and Falcon heal their wounded psyches a little bit.
Merlin uses Arthur. Gandalf uses Bilbo and Frodo. Dumbledore uses Harry to an unconscionable degree. The Ancient One uses Strange. We have to wait to see if he uses someone in his turn and who that will be and how and to what end.
Like I said, there’s a long tradition of users of magic giving into the temptation to go over to the dark side.
All heroes fail in the end, even the comic ones.
Something to keep in mind maybe when thinking about the election.
Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, written by Joe Spaights, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofer, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelson, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Benjamin Bratt. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.