SPOILERS

Comparing Doctor Strange to M.C. Escher would be an easy, uneducated way of hyperbolically addressing the film’s reality bending CGI and potential for philosophical inquiry[1]. The problem is that this comparison does a disservice to the work of Escher as well as Doctor Strange’s true themes. While Relativity and tessellation are certainly in the air of the film’s aesthetic, it is by no means an updating of (or even in conversation with) those artistic conventions. The film is, however, a quick journey into the experience of temporal understanding; a mulling over what it means to be possible. In this review, I want to discuss how the film’s effects underpin its themes of intellectual decentering and the nature of possibility. Reviews universally agree that when the story fails, the effects succeed. However, the relationship is more complicated than two unrelated filmmaking elements producing some brief pleasure. Here, I argue that the effects produce what succeeds about the story of Doctor Strange, and the plot and characters are what weigh down what could’ve been a brilliant cinematic experience.

There is a popular phrase in modern film criticism: style over substance. It comes from a premise that narrowly defines story only as a sum of plot and characters. Here, assuming that plot and character is only possible through conventional narrative means of exposition, dialogue and unambiguous plotting. It assumes a tight sequence of events and clear characterization exclusively make up what can be considered good storytelling. The problem with this claim is that it disregards the power of individual artistic mediums. A poem needs no characters. A painting, no plot. And a film, sometimes, doesn’t need either. And yet, all these arts are capable of telling stories. This is not to say we can string any random assortment of sights and sounds together and call it story. However, each medium has at its disposal different tools. Certain stories are only possible with certain tools. Restrictively defining story as character and plot attempts to universalize how one can discuss story in every instance but in actuality it only limits how different tools can be interpreted. In art, we say that every work is an example of what it means to be an art, but it is not a blueprint. The intention being that we do not restrict the reaches of the artistic. For criticism, this idea of [plot + character = story] does just that for interpretation of work.

So when one says “style over substance,” they assume two things: that substance cannot come from style, and that story in this narrowly defined sense is the only way to achieve substance. In both assumptions, there is a disregard for how different mediums are able to tell stories. In film, visuals, sound, and editing can do the same job as the script’s plotting and characterization. For The Shining, style is the substance. Analysis, therefore, should make full use of the structure of the work. An analysis of a film that only touches on the characters and plot, with no mind to the structure of the narrative, editing, scene composition, essentially the tools of film, has failed to capture anything more than a fraction of the work’s meaning.

When we look at Doctor Strange, we have a film that is praised for its visuals constantly only to be undercut by the story being told. While it is the case that the story is weak, it is not the case that the story is independent of the visual component. Aspects of plot and character are truly what undercut the story which is masterfully integrated into the nature of the visual effects. This is not to say that the visuals are effective in all their thematic endeavors, but simply to say the reliance on the psychedelic imagery (the very thing that made the early Steve Ditko comics so unique) is a good idea. The visuals are able to convey the character arc of Stephen Strange, as well as the underlying ideas of time and possibility without the need for heavy verbalization. It is, however, the inability of the characters to meet the visuals and push the film forward that cause it to stumble into (sadly) genericism.

Dr. Stephen Strange is not independently a unique or interesting character in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The dominance in his career, the sarcastic wit and the arrogant demeanor all describe Tony Stark just as well (if not more so). Scott Lang and Starlord also share some of Dr. Strange’s traits and so while this personality may play well to the unsuspecting, it is an archetype that permeates this franchise. More importantly, it dominates the cultural zeitgeist of the twenty first century. The same culture that follows Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, rooting for authority figures who disrespect authority, also write Gregory House, Robert Downey, Jr.’s version of Iron Man and a host of leading men that deflect with humor, concealing moral defects. One could so far as to call this architype the new dominate masculine identity among pop culture. It is within this tradition that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange exists, making it especially difficult to stand out but also not requiring much effort on the part of the writers, as this identity is easy to sell. Couple that with a love interest that both enables him and an advisory that shares a very similar worldview, and we have a character that is as predictable now as the damaged, counter culture bad boy was in the 80s and the all-American hero was in the 60s.

Doctor Strange does little to subvert any of these characteristics. Rachel McAdam’s may be a fine actress but the narrative purpose of her character (Christine Palmer) is nonexistent, aside from being the stand-in for characters like Lisa Cuddy and Pepper Potts who bounce off the same architype as Strange. Chiwetel Ejiofor may be the only character that structurally inverts their role; the comrade in arms. Even so, much of his characterization comes as a payoff in the climax, for which the only setup is one line of early exposition and no narrative re-establishing or character internalization of said line. Mads Mikkelson channels Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith: a truly brilliant actor in a worthwhile rule, sadly underutilized both as an actor and as a narrative antagonist. To its credit, Mikkelson’s Kaecilius does debate his ideology with Strange, making him a functional foe, though far from a good one.

Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One was given the most attention during the film’s lead up. Her casting represented another case of Hollywood structural racism. In truth, this affair is far more complex than casting an Asian actress. With how the film functions as is, Swinton is now part of a long tradition of Asian ideology, culture and teachings being embodied by the white, western identity. A master on the level of the Ancient One engaging in a largely Asian Aesthetic being played by a white actress only serves to reinforce western epistemic dominance in other cultures. However, casting an Asian actress (or actor since the comic counterpart is male) would create a similar problem to Daredevil Season 2. That series reinforced Asian stereotypes and western dominance through the depiction of the Hand. More of this can be understood through Arthur Chu’s “Not Your Asian Ninja.”

All this to say that the character work of Doctor Strange has much to be desired, and the same can be said for the plot. The film operates in the standard superhero origin structure. It even mimics aspects of Iron Man by using music to convey the personality of the protagonist. Very little about the plot is genuinely surprising. None of this makes the film outright awful like other superhero origins. Rather, it makes it very plain. Doctor Strange is nothing if not functional in every regard which presents difficulty in any descriptive account, making it sound far more dull and uninspired than it actually is. In truth, the film is an enjoyable journey; an experience. That experience, or style, is only damaged by the standard characters but aided remarkably by the visuals.

There are two core themes at play here that justify the experience of this film: intellectual decentering and possibility, both of which incorporate the film’s use of time. By intellectual decentering, we invoke Elain Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just.” This is a piece I’ve written about in the past but for now, the only line we need to borrow is the following:  “Beauty, according to Weil, requires us ‘to give up our imaginary position as the center…’”[2] In her writing, Scarry defined a concept of Radical Decentering which represented the Kantian notion of disinterestedness, or appropriate impartiality. I do not mean “decentering” in this sense but I want to draw from Scarry’s quotation of Weil: “our imaginary position as the center.” Dr. Strange’s introduction into the mystic arts comes after he gives up an existential nihilist view. He has to give us his place at the center of his own metaphoric universe after learning of the literal, expansive multiverse.

Visually, the film conducts this arc through the use of astral projection. In the first case of intellectual decenter, Strange is forced out of his body by the Ancient One and thrust into the astral plane. It’s this moment, along with an exploration of the vastness of the universe, that opens his mind to a decentering or selflessness. Later, this visual is again utilized when Strange is stabbed. He fights a follower of Kaecilius while his body is being operated on. Here, there is a conflict between one’s sense of control and the nature of the universe. Strange is facing the inevitability of death outside of his own bodily experience. Not prepared to accept this, he’s caught in a fight for his life while in astral form. His arc resolves when the Ancient One accepts death, but elongates her final moment through an astral projection. Each time, the character arc finds its foothold through the visual elements of the film, showing us literally what Strange’s ego must do metaphorically. As suggested earlier, this arc is nothing unique on paper but enhances itself through the tools of cinema.

The concept of surrender is further discussed in dialogue through the idea of death. Strange kills someone and then has an outburst to Mordo and the Ancient One about how this conflicts with his oath as a doctor. As Strange grows to further and further accept his new role, the dialogue presents a struggle about his title: Mr. Strange, Master Strange or Dr. Strange. His arc of growth and state of becoming are all presented as functions of time. His years of study made him a doctor, in the same way his time studying allows him to master the mystic arts. Each milestone of his growing abilities is accompanied with continued fixation on what he chooses to call himself. In so doing, his surrounding of self is partly a death, in line with a classic hero’s journey of rebirth. He is no longer medical Dr. Strange, nor is he simply Mr. Strange, or Master Strange. His final utterance of Dr. Strange is a transformed identity that culminates his arc.

This arc and fixation on titles is accompanied by physical objects: the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation. Both mystical objects that embody aspects of Strange’s arc. The Eye is a relic with control over time, its use corresponding to Strange’s time studying and growing mastery. The cloak is an elevation; his growth has allowed him to reach higher than he has before. It’s that growth that helps him defeat Kaecilius’ forces; both objects are pivotal to the resolution of battles.

Here, we can introduce the concept of time in more detail. Scientifically, there is a long history of understanding the occurrence of time. Rather than going the more analytic road in our understanding, we shall discuss time from the perspective of its being experienced. Umberto Eco summarizes numerous concepts of time in his essay “The Myth of Superman.” There, time is used to understand the structural contradictions of the mythic and typical in Superman. Here, we introduce time not from a structural understanding, but as a visual symbol of the previously mentioned themes.

Eco writes: “The Aristotelian definition of time is ‘the amount of movement from before to after’ and since antiquity time has implied the idea of succession; the Kantian analysis has established unequivocally that this idea must be associated with an idea of causality.”[3] Time as a function of cause and effect, a before and after, allows for a much more subjective view. In this sense, time occurs merely as a sensation or perception (argued famously by William James). When we learn that Dormammu exists, and Kaecilius craves, an existence without time they mean, more literally, an existence free of effects. No death, no end, no consumption (as Eco characterizes myth). Due to our limited perception, this is seen as against the natural order. “This concept of time is what permits us to move around and to recognize events and their directions.”[4] As Doctor Strange is preoccupied with subverting what we think we know about the nature of reality, time must remain a key thematic factor because of its ability to orient us. The discussion of natural law (favored strictly by Mordo and loosely by the Ancient One) is an understanding of time’s abilities to impact our reality. For Kaecilius, time as a perceptual construct must be eradicated.

However, Kaecilius’ goal goes against the very nature of subjective experience. Eco puts in contrast to the classical view of time, the existential/phenomenological view[5]. “Time as a structure of possibility is, in fact, the problem of our moving toward a future, having behind us a past…”[6] The ability to act freely, to choose or not choose a future, depend upon a continuity from the past. The eradication of perception of time is the eradication of freedom and identity, as well as any possibility of a future. Husserl and Sartre make this argument in respect to the freedom of the “I” as a function of past events and future possibility. With possibility’s place in the story of Doctor Strange, the eradication of time is also the death of every possibility.

Visually, the film places heavy focus on what the viewer can conceive of as “possible.” On a simple level, narrative conveniences like Mordo overhearing Strange’s search for Kamar-Taj or learning about Pangborn’s success are not problems for the story, as they structurally reflect a configuration of possible events. Every general aspect of the plot is possible. An arrogant doctor losing the use of his hand. A chance to study spirituality rather than material medicine. The ability of a newcomer to learn a new trade quickly and effectively. On a basic level, Strange’s quest to learn is the structural representation of the idea of time as a perception of possibility.

On a more complex level, the time loop that traps Dormammu, as well as the action sequence centered on the Eye of Agamotto represent more detailed understandings of time as possibility. Perhaps the best action sequence of the film is Strange fighting Kaecilius while the Eye reconstitutes everything around them; a kind of reverse action seen that builds as it goes along rather than destroys. Playfully, the Stan Lee cameo here is him reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception. Clearly, the film wants to brag about its reality warping effects. To give credit where its due, this particular effect is worth bragging about. The idea here is on the possibility of future only as a function of past and action. The reconstruction of the final sanctum as Strange fights Kaecilius represents this theme via the student Strange as the embodiment of constant becoming towards something, acting constantly in the interest of the past. Previously in the film, Strange uses the Eye to reconstitute the missing pages of a book. Again, acting in the interest of his own learning but creating a necessary series of events that has to come from the past.

This is clearly not anything like M. C. Escher’s artwork, but there is something interesting to philosophically discuss. The loose, generic framework of the hero’s journey utilized by the plot and characters is very uniquely elevated by the elements of time and reality alteration. The action is focused on visual effects but those effects create the most complex aspect of this film’s story. However, the problem is that the more traditional elements of character and plot never meet these ideas. When Strange’s journey is complete, there is no debate about the standing of natural law or how the meaning of possibility has been altered for each of these characters. Mordo simply airs his grievances and exits, leaving no room for conversation. The finale is a series of check list moments that allow for the setup of better future adventures. Ultimately, one could further read that as contributing to the film’s theme of the possible but that would most certainly be giving the film too much credit as this is typical of the MCU.

Ultimately, Doctor Strange is an interesting film. Nothing about the plot or characters is much more than functional, however the story that is being told is almost entirely contained within the ability of the visual effects to elevate the material. The visual metaphors and action sequences provide enough philosophical subtext to contemplate. However, the problem is that the film is completely out of touch with these ideas. Yes, possibility and the nature of time are fascinating but no one is going to get true understanding of those ideas just from watching this film. Like Stan Lee, it would be better just to flip through Doors of Perception. All of this said, Doctor Strange is not a bad film. It is at best okay. The disappointment with this average film is that the same material could’ve made a truly brilliant film possible.

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[1] As seen in Matthew Turner’s “Doctor Strange review: Benedict Cumberbatch’s superhero movie is Inception meets MC Escher.” iNews.com. 23, October 2016.

[2] Scarry, Elaine. “On Beauty and Being Just.” P. 77

[3] Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972. P. 16

[4] Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972. P. 16

[5] Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972. P. 16

[6] Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972. P. 17

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