Doctor Strange’s Cross to Bear

The newest and oddest of the Marvel movies offers "Eastern" hoohah — and topped the charts this weekend, with an $85 million opening.

By Anthony Sacramone Published on November 7, 2016

Doctor Strange is the latest Marvel marvel to hit the Big Screen, to raves, cheers and inflated 3D prices. Critics have been tripping over their USB-C dongles to heap praise on this “acid trip” of a comic book fantasy, with star Benedict Cumberbatch stating it will change the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I wish I had seen that film. Instead I sat through a cacophonous farrago of vertical kickboxing and vermillion portals to Bleecker Street and Big Giants Heads that had me considering the ethics of sneaking into a showing of The Accountant. To paraphrase Burt Reynolds’s character from The End, Doctor Strange is like a 23rd century Walt Disney threw up on an Imax screen.

Doctor Strange offers an Eastern mysticism cum medieval cabbalistic hooey that caters to desperate Outsiders — and the demonic.

For those not in the geek know, Doctor Strange is a gifted and arrogant neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. Desperate to find healing and return to his job saving only interesting people, he does what many before him have done: he heads East (think Batman Begins). Yes, Strange, the embodiment of Western technological hubris, hightails it to Kathmandu and humbles himself before the Ancient One, played by the anything-but-ancient Tilda Swinton.

Strange comes to learn in startling fashion that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his materialist philosophy. With literally one impressive shove, the Ancient One introduces the Doctor to his astral form, his spirit, if you will, which can exist outside the body and even engage in fisticuffs. Our hero is soon put through his mystic paces, only to graduate with a new look, a cool ring that gives him numinous powers last seen in Harry Potter, and a circumfluent cape that doubles as cobelligerent.

Strange is soon battling Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One who has stolen the Book of Cagliostro, which offers rituals to access the Dark Dimension and the secrets of the Ancient One’s apparent immortality. (Frankly, there is so much mystical blah-blah bandied about it’s hard to keep track of what powers who has acquired when and for what purpose.)

Fantasy’s Internal Logic

Look, even fantasy requires an internal logic, a code by which you can decipher what is and isn’t possible. In Strange, anything is possible, given that you’re dealing in multiple universes and magical faculties that enable characters to reverse time and reconstruct entire cityscapes. I often lost my place in the scheme of things (except when the scene was set in one of the loci of superintending mystical power, Greenwich Village) or whether what passes for a plot was advancing or merely stalling for a sequel.

After an hour of this metamorphosing mess I was exhausted. Perhaps those already familiar with this universe were better able to orient themselves, even as characters were flipping head over feet in action set pieces that put me in mind of Christopher Nolan’s Inception wedded to outtakes from the Transformers franchise. Frankly, there is nothing truly original here, in the way, say, The Matrix stunned with its cyberpunk visuals. There just seems to be more of it, layered, one effect atop another, until you could be anywhere at any time … for any reason.

With that said, Cumberbatch is sorta fun to watch, although he brings a Sherlockian otherworldliness to Strange that sits uneasily with what should be an earth-bound levelheadedness (to make his transformation into a super-magus all the more spectacular). Rachel McAdams has the thankless job of playing the Doctor’s love interest, even though she’s one with a medical degree.

But it is Tilda Swinton who makes any of this bearable. She is a miracle of stasis, even when pulverizing bullies and remaking reality. Despite the controversy of “whitewashing” the roleSwinton’s casting was inspired, as she adds an occultic charm to the otherwise stereotypical role.

Religious Fantasy

Fantasies lend themselves to “religious” interpretations perhaps more than most genre fiction. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the most obvious example, and The Matrix, obviously, is unintelligible (to the extent that it’s intelligible at all) without adverting to metaphysics. Strange offers an Eastern mysticism cum medieval cabbalistic hooey that caters to desperate Outsiders — and the demonic.

I wonder how Asians and Asian-Americans view such stuff. Is it flattering to see Westerners abase themselves before the “wisdom of the East”? Or does the reduction of millennia-old spiritual and martial traditions to phantasmagorical claptrap produce only seat-shifting and eyerolls?

I wonder how Asians and Asian-Americans view such stuff. Is it flattering to see Westerners abase themselves before the “wisdom of the East”?

Most notable here is how “spiritual” pursuits are so quickly linked to a grasping for power. Sure, you must come to terms with your own weakness, but only to harness the Other’s far greater Power. Strange wants to heal his hands so he can return to saving bodies. The Ancient One wants to heal his tunnel vision so he can become another kind of savior, one requiring powers previously unimagined.

Kaecilius, too, wanted healing at the beginning of his journey but chose instead to fight the root cause of all decay: time. He now wants not a makeover but a do-over. “Imagine a world beyond time,” he says repeatedly. Access to the Dark Dimension is power over time, which is power over death itself.

Not to give too much away, but the film’s climax has the Doctor realizing his new vocation as mediator between earth and not-earth, presenting himself as bait to Dormammu, Overlord of the Dark Dimension: Strange as a makeshift Christ, but dying over and over, battling immortality with mortality, eternity with time, hoping Dormammu will cry uncle out of sheer ouroboric boredom. After all that mind-bending, shape-shifting contretemps, it’s Groundhog Day that’s the proffered linchpin in the battle between good and weirdness. OK.

Baloney, Ancient One

In a final, surprising concession to the natural way of things, the Ancient One confesses that “death is what gives this life meaning.” In other words, only in accepting that everything ends can joy be found in the present moment. Baloney. The bad guy was right about one thing: death is the enemy. We do want more than just healing for this life: we want the eternal.

We need the eternal — to render all of life’s brokenness not meaningful but irrelevant. Whatever we missed because time ran out will be found in abundance in a Kingdom without end. The Ancient One may give death its due, but the Ancient of Days promised, instead, to rescue us from futile cycles of death and rebirth. In the end it is not our death that gives life meaning, but His.

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