MCU Retrospective: Doctor Strange

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And we are back to origin stories… 

70/100

A tortured genius, a bit of an asshole, a lot socially inept—I could be describing any number of the characters Benedict Cumberbatch has played throughout his career, but in this particular case I am describing Stephen Strange, first name-dropped in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now, two years later, making his big screen debut. Yet while Cumberbatch seems destined for the role, and indeed he was the first actor suggested, scheduling conflicts forced Marvel to look at a whole host of other performers, with everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Matthew McConaughey apparently in the running, as well as future co-stars of Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. But, finally, Cumberbatch sealed the deal, cementing his typecast forever.

There’s a reason, though, that Cumberbatch is so well known for playing these rather callous individuals (a trend which started with Sherlock back in 2010)—he’s damn good at it. Stephen Strange, renowned neurosurgeon, is a huge ass. While he seems to have a decent relationship with his colleagues, he regularly touts how superior a surgeon he is (especially to Michael Stuhlbarg—woefully underused here—as Nicodemus West, a minor antagonist to Strange in the comics); he has an obnoxious collection of rotating watches; he turns down patients because he doesn’t want to mess up his perfect record and treats them as experiments rather than people in need of help. His fear of failure and desire to control everything drive him to extremes, so when he gets into a car crash, it’s not exactly heartbreaking.

It kickstarts an existential crisis for Strange, though, who loses the use of his hands—the hands which gave him his livelihood, which vaulted him to excellence—and, in his despair, pushes away the only person who truly cares about him (and his ex), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), another in the long line of neglected female love interests. Eventually, he sinks so low that he is willing to seek out solutions that come not from science, but magic. Dr. Strange quickly finds his way to the Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where he meets a group of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton.

Marvel, as in Iron Man 3, tried to sidestep controversy in casting Swinton, and instead wound up stirring it up as they cast a white woman in a role traditionally occupied by a Tibetan man. Doctor Strange’s director, horror veteran Scott Derrickson, avoided casting an Asian actor in an attempt to steer clear of stereotypes, saying, “In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a Dragon Lady… Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.” Co-writer (with Derrickson and Jon Spaihts) C. Robert Cargill called the situation “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru,” referencing the impossible training situation from Star Trek: have a mustachioed Asian man dispensing “Eastern wisdom” to the white man, or have accusations of appropriation thrown your way by casting a non-Asian.

Yet the choice shouldn’t be between stereotypical representation or no representation at all. As Kevin Feige would later admit, “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.” (That he declines to elaborate on how he would do this now is perhaps an indicator that he only said this to cover up bad PR from years ago, but…)

Casting Swinton also means that Doctor Strange lacks Asian representation aside from Benedict Wong’s character (named, uh, Wong), something that stings when much of the movie builds itself on Westernized Asian “mysticism,” with monks and magic and chakras and no specificity. The white man goes to Asia, ogles at some things, and finds his spirit healed, hooray! Marvel would have similar problems with Netflix’s critically panned Iron Fist, with Finn Jones’ (white) Danny Rand utilizing his Chi to take down (Asian) bad guys, and to a lesser extent in Daredevil, where season two villainous group The Hand consisted of ninjas that had no characteristics except “foreign/Asian” and “scary.” Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda would even claim that former Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb said, “Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people. There were three previous Marvel movies, a trilogy called Blade that was made where Wesley Snipes killed 200 Asians each movie. Nobody gives a shit.” 

(Loeb, it should be noted, reported to Ike Perlmutter rather than Kevin Feige until Marvel Television shut down in 2019, giving all television powers to Feige. It also should be noted that Marvel Television had Marvel’s first Asian superhero with Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which also featured Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May as a main character for all seven seasons, and had an Asian co-showrunner in Maurissa Tancharoen, whose brother Kevin helmed some of the series’ best episodes. S.H.I.E.L.D. is where it’s at, folks.)

In the case of Doctor Strange, there is also the small issue that China does not recognize Tibet as a sovereign state, and Marvel didn’t want to lose out on that sweet, sweet Chinese box office. Cargill explained, “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This was not the first time Marvel catered to China and the CCP, nor will it be the last.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The circumstances around Swinton’s casting (and Marvel’s historically abysmal handling of Asian representation) are unfortunate, as she does a stellar job as the Ancient One, conveying all the wisdom of eternity while still maintaining a sense of playfulness that prevents the character from slipping into caricature or tropes. And, of course, she really looks like she could be an ageless, ancient sorcerer with immense power at her fingertips. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells Strange, and then opens the door.

What follows is a very trippy sequence involving Strange travelling through outer space, tumbling through different dimensions, and getting dragged to hell by a horde of hands. Up until this point, the MCU has largely tried to ground itself in some kind of implausible plausibility. Even Asgard’s magic was cloaked as science and handwaved away with Arthur C. Clarke quotes, but in Doctor Strange, we dive headfirst into something that cannot be explained with pure science, as much as its titular character would like to think so, and open up innumerable doors within the MCU sandbox. Strange, the ultimate logician, gets pushed so far that he seeks answers outside of the scientific realm he built his life on. It’s an interesting conundrum for a character to find himself in, though he seems to change course quickly enough, which leaves us wanting a bit more emotional turmoil. The revelation that magic exists should entirely upend Strange’s world, but we have a plot to get through, after all, and so after the initial shock of the Ancient One punching Strange’s astral form out of his body, he gets down to work.

Like Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange has all the elements required for some very kooky shenanigans, yet plays it disappointingly safe. To Doctor Strange’s credit, none of its predecessors have tiny hands swarming around the main character as he tumbles through a strange LSD trip, but it never truly breaks free of the largely uninspiring Marvel visual palette. There’s always the sense that things could and should go even further, even though it certainly breaks new ground for Marvel. But not everything in this universe should just be good for Marvel (though that has certainly satisfied me plenty of times, don’t get me wrong), it should be bold in its own right, and Doctor Strange never quite goes far enough, leaving us only with weak comparisons to Inception and The Matrix.

As Strange throws himself into his sorcerer training, and his old arrogance begins to return, though it’s tempered with a bit more humility this time around. Still, he sees fit to pocket the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful magical object with the ability to reverse the flow of time, for himself. Control freak to the last, it would seem. 

Trouble comes in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student bearing striking resemblance in personality to Strange. Kaecilius wants to fold Earth into the Dark Dimension (whatever that is) and Dormammu (whoever that is, though he is also played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to give everyone eternal life (through locking everyone in a place without time), which is not the most exciting motivation for Marvel villain—world annihilation is so overdone these days—but it’s Mads Mikkelsen, and that gives a measure of gravitas to the proceedings. But it’s not just a desire to avoid the ravages of time that drives Kaecilius: in a reveal that bears less weight than it should, given that the Dark Dimension means virtually nothing to the audience, it turns out that the Ancient One can be so ancient because she draws on force from the Dark Dimension to extend her life, and Kaecilius wishes to drag her hypocrisy out into the light.

That he does, disillusioning fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo, played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor; though Mordo does not have a whole lot to do here, Ejiofor is magnetic, and poised to become one of the more interesting characters in future entries. Mordo is rigid, unyielding, and has no tolerance for the bending or breaking of rules, especially as the Ancient One made herself the only exception.

Kaecilius succeeds in fatally wounding the Ancient One, but before she dies, she and Strange astral project to have one final conversation on a hospital balcony, watching the snow fall. “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning: to know your days are numbered, your time is short,” the Ancient One tells Strange. It’s a beautiful moment frozen in time, and Tilda Swinton is phenomenal; unfortunately, the Ancient One’s excuse for utilizing the Dark Dimension—“Sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good”—rings a bit hollow. Perhaps “hollow” isn’t the right word, but I wish her hypocrisy had been explored more, rather than by and large glossed over, as it adds an interesting dimension to the world Strange now inhabits, the Ancient One, and Kaecilius.

With their leader dead, Strange, Wong, and Mordo set out to stop Kaecilius and Dormammu once and for all. The finale to Doctor Strange serves as one of Marvel’s more unique ones: set in Hong Kong, our sorcerer trio have a relatively small-time fight against Kaecilius and a couple of his lackeys, but what sets it apart is Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto, which means that the final showdown happens while everyone around the combatants goes backwards in time. It’s a neat trick that allows for more engagement than, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s mind-numbing onslaught of robots. The real kicker comes when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to go toe-to-toe with Dormammu—not with his magical prowess, but with his mind. 

The actual logistics of this sequence don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny (mostly because it’s never really established what the Dark Dimension actually is), but Strange annoying Dormammu to defeat via a time loop and endless repetitions of, “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” is certainly a first for the MCU, and maybe cinema as a whole. (It even became a meme!) If the rest of Doctor Strange had shown the originality it does in its finale, the film would be among the best. As it is, there are brief flashes of brilliance amidst an otherwise rote Marvel story that pretends to be breaking new ground.

To be fair, origin stories are hard. Marvel is at its best when playing in an already-established sandbox, playing its characters off each other and letting them marinate in their interwoven world, but it’s much harder to come out of the gate swinging when so much of your success relies on crossovers and cameos (if that’s a good thing on a storytelling level, well…); if the MCU is a glorified television show, origin stories are a bit like bottle episodes, and like bottle episodes, they don’t always work. Doctor Strange is far from bad, and indeed has some stellar moments, but it’s not exactly memorable, either, though it should have had every right to be.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Well, uh, that’s another Infinity Stone. Cool.
  • Christine Palmer goes by the Night Nurse in the comics, a moniker which goes to the Netflix character Claire Temple in the MCU, portrayed by Rosario Dawson (if we’re still counting the Netflix shows as canon, that is, but with the rumored appearances of Charlie Cox in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Vincent D’Onofrio in Disney+’s Hawkeye, it seems we are).
  • There were rumors flying that one of the potential patients Strange turns down was Captain Marvel, though this turned out not to be the case.
  • “This universe is only one of an infinite number,” the Ancient One says. You could even say that there’s a multiverse of madness out there!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Strange and the Ancient One conversing on the astral plane while the latter lays dying on an operating table, but runner up is Strange and Kaecilius’ minion duking it out on the astral plane while Christine operates on Strange in reality.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy, 4. The Avengers, 5. Captain America: The First Avenger, 6. Iron Man 3, 7. Iron Man, 8. Doctor Strange, 9. Ant-Man, 10. Thor, 11. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 12. Thor: The Dark World, 13. Iron Man 2, 14. The Incredible Hulk

Doctor Strange Trailer

Doctor Strange is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: No Man of God

Written by Anna Harrison

55/100

No Man of God director Amber Sealey recently posted on Instagram a lengthy email from director Joe Berlinger, in which he accused her of taking aim at his own films about Ted Bundy—Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with Zac Efron, and the documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes—in a Refinery29 interview, where Sealey stated, “I don’t personally believe that any of the movies that have already been made up until now have really shown the real Bundy… They always glorify him.” 

Now, leaving aside the moral quandary that arises from this rather immature spat, the question arises: Can there ever exist a movie about Bundy without glorification? There is always a certain voyeuristic fascination with figures like him, even as we are repulsed by their actions; America has a constant need for celebrity, and killers, especially charismatic men like Bundy and Charles Manson, fill those shoes with ease. François Truffaut famously claimed that “There is no such thing as an anti-war film”; can there exist a movie about a figure like Ted Bundy that doesn’t glorify him?

It’s a hard thing to avoid, especially when Bundy as played by Luke Kirby oozes a snakelike charm throughout No Man of God, even at his most despicable. You can’t help but be fascinated by him, by the cocked eyebrows and tilted head, something that FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood, who needs to drop his skincare routine as soon as possible) comes to find after he volunteers to interview Bundy in an effort to discover what makes serial killers tick. “Dear Mr. Bundy,” Hagmaier writes before tossing the paper. He eventually settles on, “Dear T.,” and so correspondence begins. Eventually, correspondence begins, and Hagmaier makes various trips down to Florida over the course of several years while Bundy waits in limbo, still denying his crimes. 

The two make an odd couple: Bundy, slippery and dangerous, and Hagmaier, straightforward and devout. But they are fascinated by each other, and by the knowledge that, had things only been a little different, their places could have been switched: Bundy as the agent, Hagmaier as the killer. An obsession with “normal” plagues them both; could normal people do what they do? Are normal people capable of what Bundy did, or are both Bundy and Hagmaier unnatural? Together, Wood and Kirby form an infinitely watchable duo, simultaneously bouncing off of and melding into each other. They discuss everything from elementary school hijinks to pornography, getting closer and closer as they circle each other, probing into each other’s psyche. Does Bundy truly view Hagmaier as a friend, or is he just manipulating him?

However, the excellent performances make the shortcomings of the film that much more frustrating. Writer C. Robert Cargill of Doctor Strange, under the pen name Kit Lesser, carefully creates the parallels between Hagmaier and Bundy, but fails to elaborate on them past the surface level; it’s hard not to think about others that have done it better, especially in certain adaptations about a cannibal with a suspicious-sounding name. The real Hagmaier served as an executive producer for No Man of God, and part of me wonders if that hamstrung the film and Cargill had to step back from anything too damning lest he paint Hagmaier in a negative light. What could have been engrossing psychological drama ends up being rather unremarkable material elevated by the two leads at its center. 

The best moments come towards the end, when the media frenzy reaches a high around Bundy and he begins, for the first time, to fear his own death. Kirby never lets the viewer forget Bundy’s nature, his cold misogyny and violence, but by degrees lets in a real vulnerability as he reckons with his impending doom. It’s a tightrope act that Kirby walks with apparent ease. Wood shines too as Bundy finally lays bare the nature of his crimes and the depths to which he sank to Hagmaier, an excellently edited sequence cutting between the two so quickly it becomes hard to tell who’s who, the closest the film gets to committing to the merging of Hagmaier and Bundy. 

Does Sealey succeed in making a film that doesn’t glorify Bundy? It’s hard to say; perhaps its mere existence glorifies him. Though Sealey attempts to try a new approach with Bundy, No Man of God ultimately retreads well-worn ground, and the efforts to separate itself from the crowd don’t go far enough. The seeds of a gripping character-driven psychological thriller are all planted, but despite Wood and Kirby’s best efforts, they fail to produce anything more than sprouts.

No Man of God is currently streaming as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home(available only in the USA). No Man of God is currently scheduled for Theatrical Release on August 27th.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.