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.

Ted Lasso: Season 1 Review

Written by Alexander Reams

In honor of Ted Lasso Season 2 premiering today we have a full review of Season 1 in it’s entirety below. Once you’re done reading you can watch Season 2 Episode one here.

Season 1 Overall Rating: 93/100

Episode 1: Pilot

90/100

Our first introduction to titular Ted Lasso is of him dancing with his American football team after taking them from being a garbage pile to state champions. This gets the attention of recently divorced Rebecca Welton who subsequently hires Lasso as the newest coach of her ex-husbands association football club (AFC). When he arrives in London, followed by Coach Beard, his best friend, he is greeted by Nate, who Lasso dubs “Nate the Great”, and meets the owner, Rebecca Welton, and her lackey, Higgins. Ted Lasso is one of the most genuine characters to enter the television medium and after this introduction moment, I immediately wanted him to succeed in every aspect in the show. His rapport with Coach Beard is one of my favorite aspects of the show, and in this episode in particular. During the plane scene their rapport is hilarious but also so heartwarming and was easily my favorite scene of the episode. 

Episode 2: Biscuits

86/100               

Ted Lasso: Hold on, now. If I were to get fired from my job where I’m putting cleats in the trunk of my car… 

Coach Beard: You got the boot from puttin’ boots in the boot. 

Ted Lasso: [laughs] I love that.

One of the perfect examples of why Ted Lasso captures the “fish out of water” trope with such precision with a perfect level of aloofness. The quote above is one of my favorite interactions between Lasso and Brendan Hunt’s “Coach Beard”. This moment not only is a great showcase of their relationship, but also shows Lasso’s unfamiliarity with the territory still, while Beard has already assimilated and soaked up knowledge of their environment, serving as a guide to Lasso in this new terrain. With this moment I felt like I immediately knew everything about Coach Beard, he studies his environment, can keep a calm demeanor and let his coaching partner do the emotions for him, while he focuses on the team on an even deeper level, and has an unwavering loyalty to Lasso. 

Episode 3: Trent Crimm: The Independent

92/100

I think going into this show, we were all in some way Trent Crimm, Ted Lasso’s most vicious critic and one who takes joy in exploiting his lack of knowledge about the sport he has been hired to coach. However this episode not only stands as a turning point for myself, but also for Crimm. During the final major scene of the episode, where Trent and Ted finish their day at a restaurant, the restaurant is owned by the father of the driver who picked him and Coach Beard up from the airport in the first episode. There Lasso and Crimm eat food that is far spicier than either of their palettes are used to, however Lasso will not relent, signifying his loyalty to Richmond AFC, and like he eventually gets used to the spice, he assimilates into the environment of AFC. I love this moment as it appears on the surface to be a very simple moment of showing how polite Lasso is, and how far he will go to be nice and kind to others, but it is so much more, quite like the show itself. 

Episode 4: For the Children

94/100

A night of lights! Drama! Intrigue! Fallout! Egos clash!

All go down in this episode, Richmond AFC just suffered another loss, prompting Roy and Jamie to fight even more, old school vs. new school. It’s the night of the annual gala that Rupert and Rebecca used to host when they were married, but now Rebecca is hosting it by herself, adding more responsibilities to her shoulders. Ted sees this as an opportunity to mend fences between Roy and Jamie. Of all the episodes, this is probably the best written, taking all of the storylines set up in previous episodes and bringing them to this event. I loved the exchanges between Roy and Jamie, the undertones they exude are nothing short of hilarious, and the ending of this episode is one of my favorites in the show. 

Episode 5: Tan Lines

84/100

Ah the old buffer episode, usually towards the middle of the season of a show, especially one with a story going throughout each episode, there is a buffer, or breaker episode to give everyone some breathing room. However this show takes it and turns it on its head, instead giving us a break from the team, and a deeper look into Lasso’s personal life. Showing the troubles that were brewing before have followed him to England. Emotionally this is the first time the show takes a darker turn and a more real tone. I thought this was a brilliant move, turning the comedy into drama, but never losing the comedic beginnings the show started with. Never does comedy subvert the drama and vice versa. Spoilers ahead, there is a moment between Lasso and his wife that broke me. It shows Sudekis’ chops as a dramatic actor as well as some of the underlying nature of Lasso is still true and kind, no matter what is thrown at him. 

Episode 6: Two Aces

98/100

Comedy series often will forget the important moments of the previous episode, but the start of this episode deals directly with the fall out of Episode 5, Tan Lines. I found this to be a very nice touch. Although new issues arise quickly when mysterious injuries and folk tales begin troubling the team. Instead of being deterred, in true Lasso spirit, Ted takes this as an opportunity to bring the team closer together in a heartwarming ceremony in the treatment room. However first he has to deal with issues with Jamie, fully quoting the Allen Iverson “We’re talking about practice” speech, however adding a tone that is full of emotion from issues with his personal life. This moment in the show might be my favorite, one I think about daily. While also welcoming back Jamie to the team after benching him last episode. The way the treatment room ceremony is shot could be viewed as basic, but it lets each actor shine in their role, and made me fall even more in love with Ted Lasso. 

Episode 7: Make Rebecca Great Again

87/100

Reinvention. Not only in the team but in Rebecca. So far she has been mocked, humiliated, and overall berated not only by her ex-husband, but also the press. Now she has some time away from Richmond, followed by her new best friend Keeley Jones, the ex-girlfriend of star Jamie Tartt. To add insult to injury however, this away game that AFC Richmond is playing is against a rival who they have not beaten in 60 years, and it is the weekend of Rebecca and Rupert’s wedding anniversary. Of all the episodes this seemed to be the least important, not in terms of quality, but overall effect on the show. This is the most disconnected from the Richmond environment. However somehow the show does not suffer from this disconnect, instead providing some more much needed breathing room. 

Episode 8: The Diamond Dogs

92/100

How does the saying go “Behind every great man is an even greater woman”? Well in our titular character’s case, behind every great Lasso lies his diamond dogs. After the ending of the previous episode, where Ted hooked up with Rebecca’s friend Flo, he feels weird, given that he just signed divorce papers from his wife, and seeks counsel from Nate, Coach Beard, and Higgins. There is another who also seeks counsel. Despite her budding relationship with Roy, Keeley sleeps with Jamie, and admits it to Roy. Who then proceeds to seek the counsel of the Diamond Dogs. This is one of the more serious episodes of the series which is nice, since we are now back in the Richmond environment, and the tension adds to the overall tone of the intermingled storylines. This does seem to detract from the overall team. Despite this, its another great episode in the series. 

Episode 9: All Apologies

100/100

The penultimate episode to a mindblowing season one is here. Penultimate episodes have a special place in TV history, most recently being Game of Thrones, as well as miniseries such as Sherlock, Mare of Easttown, and Loki. Roy is dealing with the ultimate issue that has been hanging over him throughout the show and the butt of a lot of jokes, his age. He is having to finally come to terms with the fact that he is not the same player he was when he was younger. Rebecca has to pay for her sins from the start, and finally tells Ted everything. However his response is not what she expected, given all the marital issues he has experienced, he understands how she feels, and the position she was in. He responds in the most Lasso way possible, he gives her a hug, which she does not try to break free. This moment can seem small, but is one of the biggest in the show, he broke through almost everyone on the team, sans Jamie Tartt, who left Richmond AFC. Now he has broken through the toughest one yet, Rebecca. This episode provides a much needed catharsis to their relationship and is a truly beautiful moment. The other beautiful moment is at the end of the show, when Roy accepts his age issues, but still shows up to lead the team. In a show full of meaningful moments, these 2 standout. I’m not one to get emotional, but I will admit that a tear or two was shed. 

Episode 10: The Hope That Kills You

100/100

The finale. 

After a season filled with as much drama as comedy, somehow the finale lives up to everything built before. Ted has been through a lot since taking his post as coach of AFC Richmond, however despite his positive influence on them, they are one game away from being relegated. Meaning they would no longer be a premier team. Despite this pressure, Ted continues his positive outlook. Even if the pressure is clearly eating him up, add on a looming divorce, and you’ve got someone who is a pressure cooker with a time bomb. This episode drops most of the comedy that has infused the show and trades it in for tension and drama, and still fits perfectly in the show. The futbol scenes are expertly filmed, using long tracking shots which heighten the suspense. In the end, the team is relegated, however hope is not lost, because that isn’t the Lasso way. With Rebecca now wanting the team to succeed, everyone is on the same side and are now stronger than ever. The only casualty of this being Roy getting injured, and whose fate on the field is unknown. 

Season 2 begins today July 23rd

Ted Lasso Season 1 Trailer

Ted Lasso is currently streaming on AppleTV+

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.