After thirteen movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has polished its formula to a high sheen.
Which is strange since the fourteenth appears to be cobbled together from the leftover IKEA parts of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Inception, and your local community college’s screenwriting class. To be sure, I loved both of those preceding films, and I enjoyed Doctor Strange.
But if you throw comic book heroes and talented actors in front of a green screen for two hours, I’ll still line up, the way meth heads line up at a meth party. It’s just that Marvel could be doling out a better class of drug.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a marvelous actor, full of deep simmering intensity from his handsomely asymmetrical face. (That SNL sketch spoke to me in a way religion never has.) So why is he stuck as a cheap House knock off? We’re supposed to care about his hands turning to hamburger meat by a car accident, but the plot needs to plot and so its heavy wheel grinds down all with the ruthless efficiency of narrative necessity.
Soon Strange is headed off to Nepal’s Kamar-Taj to learn secret spiritual magic from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her not-cult followers Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Some critics have understandably lamented the freshmen prerequisite of More Origin Stories 101. I think classics are classics for a reason, but there is something so perfunctory about this 80s training montage masquerading as a movie until an ending that finally shows a flicker of creative spark.
I won’t belabor the point when others have done it better. Let’s get this fixed.
Make Benedict Cumberbatch a Black, British Woman
Benedict Cumberbatch should never be playing an American. I think we’ve already got enough white American male leads, which is a shame because the brilliant and utterly wasted Rachel McAdams has basically been auditioning as a time-traveling superhero her entire life. We’ll be waiting a great long time until 2018’s Black Panther and 2019’s Captain Marvel, so why remove the quintessential core of the western world’s greatest detective. Everyone loves the Brits (minus all the historical imperialism), and the film was shot in London to work with Cumberbatch’s schedule. He should be wearing the Union Jack as his Cloak of Levitation while solving mystical crimes with Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross (also inexplicably playing American).
Or better yet, cast an Asian guy and make him enter the mystically enigmatic white people world of baseball and corporate cabals where he betters everyone at drinking scotch in high-backed leather chairs as he completes a merger.
Make Tilda the Villain
Much has likewise been made about the whitewashing of the Ancient One while Swinton’s role is simultaneously being praised. I didn’t love the performance, a stone-faced, recessed performance that reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence’s overrated turn in The Hunger Games tetralogy. If I need some charismatic underplaying to spew nonsensical philosophical mumbo jumbo, I’m dusting off Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus out of The Matrix archives. At least he had a katana. Either way, I didn’t quite buy director Scott Derrickson’s explanation that it was about avoiding Asian Dragon Lady stereotypes. I get the fiscal pragmatism of bowing to Chinese pressure and avoiding casting someone Nepalese, but the role could have been filled by any other minority.
It’s understandable why they went with the first actress on their mind, considering Swinton’s considerable eerie ethereality, but she could’ve been a much more worthy Marvel villain after her previous experience being cast as the only good thing about those terrible Narnia movies. I haven’t been so terrified of Turkish Delights since the time I was lured into a windowless van.
Build a Magic System with Clear Rules and Boundaries
Look, we loved Batman Begins because it took ninjas seriously. We drank up Inception because it was something we had never ever seen before. The acting was wooden and the talented cast underperformed, but Nolan’s worldbuilding of the rules of dreams and extraction were so deep and so immersive that we could suspend belief around the high concept conceit. There are major fantasy authors like Brandon Sanderson, famed for his intricate rules and secret revelations, or Patrick Rothfuss, who creates smaller scale magic grounded in the laws of conservation of energy.
It definitely takes extra effort in terms of time and exposition, but it grounds the world thoroughly rather than relying on fireballs and lightning. Doctor Strange’s CGI is more creative than that, but it lacks the payoff we would get from a full investment into magical pseudo-science. The combat visuals are stunning but often causally incoherent. If we knew how and why the Ancient One and Kaecillius are so clever at wrapping up people in Escher paintings and others aren’t, we’d feel the same sense of wonder we felt when Nolan threw us down a spinning hotel corridor.
Less Training Montage, More Training
The leap from neophyte to Neo is often difficult to comprehend. People always learn to fight or master the arcane arts so quickly when these are rich territories for stories, especially as Doctor Strange concerns itself with an American in a foreign land and a foreign country. The most interestingly incongruent part of the Ancient One, aside from a later revelation that doesn’t quite land, is when she tosses Strange’s eldritch ass onto Everest to freeze to death. If we are to believe in the dangers of a magic that is more than literal hand-waving, then the training should actually be hard. People should be crippled. Lives should be lost.
While its renderings of global politics might not stand the test of time, Ender’s Game (the book, not the childhood-murdering movie) made you believe in the true cost of heroism. It was all moral quandaries and blood and an emptiness deep inside. And while Marvel might have racked up a few billion by avoiding going too dark, maybe Strange shouldn’t learn to wield the awesome powers of the Eye of Agamotto in less time than it took me to learn to put in contacts (a terrible analogy as that basically took several years and a trip to Nepal).
It likely doesn’t matter. Marvel has made its aforementioned billions with a formula that continues to rake in willing money, including my own. While many, including myself again, have predicted that the golden goose will someday quit laying golden eggs, that day has definitely not yet come. They have avoided the missteps of D.C. and its self-serious gravitas as Warner Bros. continues to swing hard at greatness and miss harder. But Marvel has also avoided the seminal achievement of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, and that’s a damned shame.