**Attention: Spoilers Ahead***
Doctor Strange: This doesn’t make any sense.
The Ancient One: Not everything does. Not everything has to.
Ok, The Ancient One, maybe not everything has to make sense. But some things should. Plot, for instance.
I was so very confident I would love this movie, between all of the glowing reviews and the mere fact that it starred Benedict Cumberbatch it seemed a sure thing. I was so certain, in fact, that I had a hard time admitting that I wasn’t enjoying it—I sat there for the first half of the film working very hard to convince myself that I was having a good time. But this got to be rather too much work, and wasn’t proving effective.
In the end, I really disliked this movie. Not only did I think it was riddled with plot problems, but I just didn’t have any fun watching beyond the first act. Even the mind-bending visual effects eventually bored me, because there seemed to be no solid storytelling to back it up. All flash and no substance. I walked out of the theatre scratching my head at the 90% rottentomatoes score, overhearing numerous people expounding, “that was so good,” and resisting the urge to turn to them and ask, “Really? Was it, though?”
My husband and I spent the second half of our dinner-and-a-movie date trying to think of an MCU movie we’d enjoyed less, and couldn’t come up with much. Sure, Thor was pretty bad. But at least it had Loki to entertain me. I really didn’t like Antman, but I’d take that over a second viewing of Doctor Strange gladly–at least I laughed at Paul Rudd. For me, all of the humor in this installment fell flat. With such cool visuals and such a talented cast, it just seems such a pity that it wasn’t better. My brother-in-law promised it would be like Inception, but that movie established rules and carefully followed them. It was trippy, but logically consistent. This movie was just trippy.
When I read a book or watch a movie that I either love or hate, I like to break down what’s working and what’s broken. It’s a good exercise as a storyteller. I haven’t read any of the comics, to be clear, so this is just my impression of the movie as a stand alone piece of fiction. Here’s my take on why this movie failed:
The plot was a mess–not a hot mess, exactly. More of a lukewarm mess. Like spilled oatmeal: mushy and rather congealed. I liked the opening, in fact it was the only part I did like–the first fight scene was a ton of fun to watch and Stephen Strange brilliantly extracting a bullet, showing off his memory and wit, was the only part of the movie that bothered to provide Cumberbatch worthy dialogue. I liked it–but I think it was the wrong opening.
Because the big pacing problem this movie suffered from was montage-overload. Way too little of this movie happens in real time. After his injury, we see long stretches of time pass while he seeks a way to heal (and little insight as to his motivation: what does he love about his job? The glory? The do-goodery?). Then he goes to Nepal and once again, we enter a montage-athon: he’s reading books! he’s goatee-ified! he’s stealing more books! he’s overcoming his struggles because of his….I’m not sure: effort? change in personality? knowledge? It’s pretty unclear.
The trouble with a narrative that transpires too-little in real time, is that the reader or viewer can’t feel properly anchored in the story. This is particularly the case if these sequences pass without any indicators of how much time is passing, as in this film. Seriously, how much time passes in this movie? Are we talking months or years? I have no clue. Rachel McAdams cries out when Strange pops up “after all this time”–really, how much time are we talking?
The Rules of Magic:
The biggest failing of the movie, in my opinion, is its total lack of interest in establishing the rules and parameters of the magic system. We see Strange reading, we see him practicing, but we have no notion of what he is reading and practicing. Good fantasy establishes rules and then follows them. This is important because, in the end, when the characters use these magic systems to win the day, we the viewer cheer and think: Oh yes! He’s doing that thing I already knew about! How clever! Rather than thinking: Wait, what? That’s a thing?
There’s a reason that Harry Potter always uses spells we’ve seen before. Sure, Rowling could just indicate that the characters study so they know magic and then invent spells at will, as the plot demands them. But that would be really unsatisfying to the reader. Same goes if the Doctor used the Sonic Screwdriver to get out of every single problem: it would feel like the writer was cheating.
Doctor Strange explains nothing about how its magic system works, and it seems to work however the plot needs it to. We are tantalized with seemingly fascinating tidbits, like The Ancient One saying that they can pull on abilities from alternate dimensions. How much better it would have been if Stephen Strange spent that training time learning about these dimension by traveling to them–so that we could learn along with him–and then used this knowledge later in the movie.
We see him struggling, but we have no idea why: is it just difficult? Or is he hindering himself because of his ego? Take the scene where The Ancient Once drops him off on Mt. Everest: the movie doesn’t even show him figuring out what to do, we see the scene from his teacher’s perspective. So, what did he learn/overcome? I have no idea. He ultimately beats the antagonist because of a one-off line about a possible consequence of a relic, and he somehow knows exactly how to take advantage of this despite having never done so before.
I have nothing but questions about this world: why do the good-guy and bad-guy “weapons” look different? The Ancient One says that bodies can learn to heal themselves, but for some reason Stephen’s doesn’t. Benjamin Bratt’s does, but somehow Chiwetel Ejiofor can take that away? Why? Why!?!? (Side note: the plot made a lot more sense to me when I realized that one of screenwriters also wrote Prometheus.)
Despite having a group of top notch actors, all of the characters, including the protagonist, were so thinly drawn that I didn’t care at all about them. The movie consistently exchanged opportunities for real emotional connections between characters for rather lame jokes. (Though, admittedly, other people in the movie theatre laughed heartily, so maybe the “lame” part is just me?) Rachel McAdams’ character and Stephen never have any significant interaction to justify their romance. When The Ancient One died, I felt nothing. When Chimetel Ejiofor turned at the end, I was equally indifferent. The movie never bothered to make me care about any of these characters as people–what are their idiosyncrasies, their ambitions, their fears? I still find it so strange when a two hour movie fails to make me care in the least about its characters, given that I was sobbing ten minutes into Abrams’ Star Trek.
There was no cohesive theme in this movie. It seemed like it was almost saying a lot of things, but never quite managing it. It wanted to say something about ego and arrogance, “It’s not about you!” being the big lesson that Stephen Strange was apparently meant to learn, except that never really came together in any significant way. He didn’t appear to have shed his ego as far as I could see. The movie touches upon the idea of doing something wrong to achieve an ultimate good–as with The Ancient One tapping into the dark dimension to stay alive. Are we meant to be on board with that or not? What did Stephen Strange learn? It was so thematically muddled that I’m not quite sure.
How I would fix it:
If this movie was a second draft and I was trying to improve it (again, with no reference to the source material), here’s what I would do:
I’d open with Stephen Strange looking for something in Nepal. I’d
show his scarred, shaking hands. He’d be searching, asking questions, with a pretty tight POV. Flash back to him being a hotshot doctor, and showing off his perfect memory. Back to present: he’d find what he’s looking for with a bit more difficulty than in the current draft, and be admitted to the school. Keep his wordy skepticism upon arrival. Have
The Ancient One know what had happened to him, and show a super brief flashback to the car flipping over the side of a precipice, and then him waking to see his hands. Cut back to the present, and he doesn’t believe she can help him, and he’s forlorn. He’d spent all of his money, given everything to get there. Keep her method of convincing him to stay.
Here’s where we need bigger changes. The story needs us to learn about the world as Strange does. First, I’d give him a peer that he can form a relationship with. Someone with whom he can exchange witty banter, but who will push him to grow and help us care for him as a person. The two of them talk and try, in addition to read. There is some montage, but also plenty of moments that establish just how and why he is growing as a sorcerer. There are establishing shots with seasons changing to help us mark the passage of time. The rules of the magic system are established, and a problem that needs solving arrises. I think we need a smaller-scale enemy, as this movie’s primary objective is to establish character and world. So the villain should be designed to help explain the magic system better. It’s one of the “mystical problems” that the sorcerers exist to combat, for example. Or it’s a fellow sorcerer who is using the system in a way it shouldn’t be used. Perhaps whatever it is also somehow caused his car accident, lending the plot a nice symmetry. We’ll save the Sauron-esque character for a later installment, and start off with more of a Saruman.
Strange uses the tools he’s learned to combat the enemy. Best case scenario, his progression as a character is significant to the conclusion. His new-found humility is needed to successfully defeat the enemy. Every bit of magic used in the conclusion has been previously established, with us understanding the constraints or cost involved (all magic needs either parameters or a cost, otherwise it’s impossible to have any real stakes in the story). If I were really writing this, I would probably build backwards from the climax. His cloak, for instance, shouldn’t be introduced in the very same scene that it becomes significant.
I guess we’ve just come so far in the realm of superhero movies, that I no longer feel willing to forgive lazy storytelling and lackluster scripts. There are too many better examples out there. But maybe I’m missing something. So many people loved this film. I must admit, I’m curious: why?Mesh