Review & Thoughts: Doctor Strange (2016)

Hey here’s a way to show you the goods without you having the read this whole thing. A very good friend/critic I’ve known for years put out a ranked list of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films as part of a Dr Strange review. I loved his list and thought I’d do my own, before I talk about Dr. Strange (2016).

!Captain America!
Iron Man I
Captain America: the Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Doctor Strange
—Threshold of Awesome–
Captain America: Civil War
Avengers II
Iron Man III
Thor II
Iron Man II
The Incredible Hulk

So there you are, films ranked as they contribute to the whole and stand on their own, not really going to chat about it, per say, but if you think my list is wacky you can stop now before the review.

Here there be spoilers:

I’ve read a lot of reviews for the film before I saw it in theaters. And I read a lot of comments on the Facebook for the film from my circle of friends. Generally, both places really liked the film, and for the most part, they focused on the visual story being told, often from the viewpoint of high marks for effects and connection with the original source material as conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (genius!).

Dr Strange impressed the critics (and my friends) but the critics also often made a side comment directed at Marvel, “hey, we’ve seen this before”. And the implication, the subtext, is pretty easy to see, and to me, a very cultural American sideways compliment: “Marvel, loved it, but really, you’ve jumped the shark”.

Setting aside, that every critic wants to be on the good side of “I knew the MCU was headed downhill when I saw…”, I’m going to address my thoughts about the film, and then directly counter the entire competition aspect with other MCU films that many people will insist on making, because hey, that’s just who we are as fans and critics and long-time aficionados. Yes, it could have had stronger parts for women (but hey, Swinton was amazing). Yes, it could have been more true to the original casting of Eastern ethnic wisdom (but hey, it was so OBVIOUS that all the Enlightened masters were diverse and interesting, generally more so than Stephen.)

This is a great movie, well deserving to stand next to the rest of Marvel’s collective work. The script accomplishes an amazing amount of the original material, and better yet, actually refreshes it in a way that makes it much more accessible to audiences in general, and audiences like me, who poured through the original comics back in the day.

Dr. Strange has always been a bit of a sore thumb in the Marvel comics pantheon. He sometimes gets included in the most important, thoughtful ‘crossovers’ between the brightest and brainiest leaders of the Marvel supers (as he should), but he sometimes just isn’t around. I could spend a lot of time talking about how Difficult a character he is to write for, but perhaps you might take some time to read the entire web site devoted to writing for Dr. Strange instead. It has some really clever points.

Suffice it to say, from my point of view, Dr Strange is not actually a super hero like any of the ones that we’ve seen in the MCU.

In fact, if you do a bit of research, you’ll find that (like the Fantastic Four) Dr Strange has been translated into animated films, and previous TV and other efforts. These works have all pretty much been modest and then forgotten.

I do not think this film, 2016, will be forgotten. And it is not modest. It goes right back to the heart of the original story and grabs big handfuls of that wondrous stuff and drags it kicking and screaming 50 some years into the future. I could digress and talk about how many film failures there are for material written 50 years ago, but then, clever writers have done the job and made it work over and over. Dr Strange may be a little less accessible than most of these, Superman, Batman, Captain America. There is a list of American heroes that have been cherished, and some that have grown on us slowly, and a very few that suddenly stuck, like webbing, to our sense of fun and ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Dr Strange is none of these.

I’ll go a bit further. Dr Strange is not Tony Stark. It amazes me when I see the criticism that Marvel is retelling us Tony Stark’s origin in this movie. Because if that was the case, I would not have enjoyed this film at all.

The two stories have a brisk superficial resemblance (snarky white guy proves better than all others despite any challenge), and yet, when you look at the journey, they are from different places and going different places. I cannot stick to merely the films to prove this case. Both films are really good. Both actors are uncanny in their willingness to freshen the material. Downey has both captured Tony Stark and actually upgraded his story. But again, I cannot sing the Praises of Iron Man and get to what I want to say about Dr Strange.

But consider this:

Tony Stark is a genius, son of a genius, and his talents are at such a level that he is in fact SUPER before he ever invents the Iron Man armor. Stark discovers, personally, the tools he creates and the resulting chaos of war chews up good people. His creations make misery. Tony creates unstoppable mayhem because he excels at his gadgets and everybody (largely his own country, but really everyone) wants his toys. What does he learn? He learns a good fellow having a good life can actually be completely a dick because he never bothers to leave his circle of wonderful, his privileged neighborhood. And what does he do with this knowledge? Does he realize that with great power comes great responsibility? No. Does he stop being a dick? Well, no. He becomes superdick. And he stops making weapons available so he can decide who is going to have the best toys. That’s a lot of his journey; a very American hero, sure of his privilege and genius.

Captain America just threw up. Sorry, Cap.

Dr Strange has a different journey. Stephen Strange is an asshole. Stephen doesn’t seem to come from wealth. His dad was not a genius. His childhood was not one of wonder. (The original origin does not cover this and the movie presents us only with the adult, so everything I’m saying is reverse engineering.) Stephen is keeping score with material possessions (a sign he was not always wealthy.) Stephen is keeping score on Everything. He saves people who others say cannot be saved. He sets the bar higher when he’s mastered a level of amazing surgical technique. He doesn’t much have time for anything else in his drive to be the most amazing surgeon ever. He has to read the latest science. He has to know more than everyone around him.

People look up to him because he is really talented. But Stephen knows it is hard work as much as talent. He has earned his privilege.

And what happens? Unlike Tony Stark, who is caught up in the Fire he has often himself made, Stephen is smashed by carelessness, arrogance, and I guess we have to say Fate. Stephen makes a single mistake and crushes his own abilities, and his hands. It is his fault. There are no terrorists. No bad guy. Boom! Game over, Dr Strange. You are no longer special.

You are broken beyond repair.

I cannot see the two stories of Stark and Strange in anything like the same terms. And the Marvel bosses driving this film get that. They hammer it home.

So now what is Strange’s journey? Well, Stephen thinks it is all about him. He’s not broken. He can fix it. He has money, friends, colleagues, etc. And he’s wrong. It is not something to be fixed. And then he burns through all his money and all his friends. And he is desperate and savagely angry.

And he is still an asshole. And this puts him on another path. Because… Stephen is such an asshole, that a therapist cruelly wants Stephen to know he is wrong. There was a patient worse off than Stephen who got better. Someone did what Stephen cannot do. Someone got fixed.

This information sends Strange on the fated journey, to find out how the impossible is possible. Strange is no hero. He is a broken man. He’s not wealthy any longer. He’s not talented any longer. He has ruined himself. And it is still all about him.

Enter the Ancient One. Hey, if you are still reading this, you can enjoy the rest of the movie and come back to finish this review later. I’ll wait.

Dr Strange in the comics doesn’t often use his fists. He doesn’t always win. And in the early days of his adventures, he often barely got out of situations with his skin because he defended the world against really big scary threats from other Realities. He did have a community behind him. He was a student, promising, of the Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme of the Mystic Arts.

One of the best parts of the early Dr Strange books was, he had a teacher, a long relationship, and he was always learning just HOW STRANGE the universe was.

You cannot quite do that in a two hour movie. But they did manage to give you that sense of time stretching out. The learning sequences here are subtle and seasonal and pretty nicely handled. They may not explicitly say …seasons pass…. but it is interesting and effective to me, knowing the material.

So what does the film accomplish that makes it good?

Well, I for one, expect a Dr Strange movie to be weird in a way that will give Thor a jolt or cause Heimdall to raise an eyebrow. This movie does that.

I expect a Dr Strange movie to have a villain who is accomplished, talky, and probably better than Strange at obscure powers. This movie does that too. Indeed, it could be said that the villain is more understandable than Stephen Strange. (Critics disagree, finding the writing shallow and the performance ok. I think they are wrong, I’ll get to that.)

I want a Dr Strange movie to give me pause from all the other MCU stuff going on. I want the plot to make me start worrying about things I know the other supers are NOT watching and cannot be expected to defeat. This movie really does that.

This is a really first class Dr Strange movie. Go see it if you are a fan, and if you are not a fan, well you may have some of the reservations that critics had. Maybe you’ll agree Marvel has jumped the shark.

This movie is not a summer blockbuster. And really, Dr Strange is not quite an action thriller guy (there’s even a few explosions!) But what Dr Strange is supposed to be is mostly captured in this well constructed film. On top of that, there are great character moments for the cast. A villain that is convincing and misguided. A teacher that is a fine example to her students.

And the hero’s journey? Perhaps the reason this film will not be considered a major success is exactly the choice that Strange makes in the film. You see, very late, he learns something shocking, and then even more shocking. (That’s a great Dr Strange thing, by the way, always reveal the unexpected.) And Stephen Strange chooses NOT to recapture his wonderful life. He can be the man he was, can be healed, can fix the impossible. But if he does, he walks away from having his Third Eye open and spends his magic healing his hands. He really wants that old life. He wants to save lives and be the marvelously talented surgeon, but… he finds out that it isn’t all about him. He has changed. He takes on a bigger burden, a calling. And he loses his old life.

And Tony Stark? He’s still a dick.

movie grade: A, go see it and enjoy the story.

no drama, just make it stop

Linked article that is important for gamers to understand and think about. Trigger warnings for Harassment.

So here’s the thing, I’m not the most observant guy, and I don’t game much outside of a select group of very nice people, but to my great sadness this is real and happens every day. While I feel there’s little I can do about such shallow juvenile Terrorism, if you ever have questions, or need help, whether you are in one of my games or not, I will listen and take action. This kind of Social Terror should be talked about and I’m glad that gaming events I go to have harassment policies that they talk about.

Article: Gaming has a Terrorism Problem.

Star Wars: the Force Awakens review


So, not that I’m qualified to mind meld with Abrams, or Lucas, let alone the Imagineers of Disney, but here goes, my own take of the world class phenom that is this film.

First: really enjoyed it. Looked great. Felt great. Man, I love the new characters.

Second: read 75 thoughts, because this is neatly much of my experience in watching the movie. SPOILERS, seriously.

Third: While this is a good film, with class actors, and a great future for the franchise… I hope some of the things I expected from Star Wars find their way into the next two films (let alone the next 12 years or so of the franchise.) With a running time of over two hours, there were plenty of important things left out. More on that later.

In context, you may have already read folks slotting this film into the appreciation of  SW films that have come before, (y’know, better than 1, 2, and 3, not as good as 4, 5, or 6. That kind of thing,) but I’m going to make the case that we’ve seen an adroit storyteller’s illusion in 7, setting us up for the whole future of the franchise, not really a film that was intended to give us a great stand alone story.

Movies and stories have changed a lot since the 70’s in no small part because of Star Wars.

Just think about the Lord of the Rings movies. No one much even thinks of them separately, as they know the story being told is too big for one movie. That’s what we just saw with this film. SW:TFA is not a story we can evaluate yet, as it just put the pieces on the board and a passel of questions to be answered. The next two films are intrinsic in really evaluating this film.

So if you accept that unusual premise, the rest hopefully follows. OK?

So my review in short is: good film, clunky plot. Great performances. I found Rey to be a riveting character, and the actress (Daisy Ridley) totally hooked me in every scene I can think of.

All that said, there are enough weaknesses in the film that jumped out at me in the showing that I don’t even want to entertain how long it will be picked apart before SW8 comes around. So I won’t really. I’ll just point out that the transitions between plot points were more awkward than they had to be and the film’s end doesn’t even qualify as an end. (As I pointed out above, it is a cliffhanger pointing to the next film.)

So why did we get a cliffhanger? And is it the right move?

Well, yes, I think it is. Not so much because the films up to now are structured that way but because audiences can handle cliffhangers like this due to other media exposures and more importantly, Disney decided to make the franchise films on a schedule that everyone thought was amazingly fast.

Point of fact, Abrams has now admitted that several plot outlines for this movie were discarded leading up to ‘go time’ and that the script they were going to film was discarded because the author did not have time to finish it. Last minute, literally, Abrams started from ‘scratch’ with Kasdan to script the film we saw.

So, polished story? Not so much. Which leads again to the idea of telling a bigger story across three films. This is something that Lucas could never have pulled off before SW came out.

What about turning the ‘no time’ problem into an opportunity?

My working premise right now is that they sat down at one point (Disney may have insisted on a Opportunity Assessment Session) and looked at all the places that George got himself into trouble with the Star Wars fans/franchise. Then they looked at the aggressive time schedule of shooting the films. And then they said, “Where the prequels introduced more details that contradicted the first three movies, we should be introducing more mystery so that we have time to really figure out how the next trilogy ends.”

If you look at SW:TFA as a movie that almost did not have a story ready, it is clear to me that they needed to give themselves ‘story slack’, and mysteries to solve in the next two unwritten scripts, and that they knew they would be smarter to give themselves holes to work with. I think they have ideas, but actually bet they chopped things out of this movie, to make things more ambiguous. Some of that could be cutting room floor and pacing, but I think much of it (omg, LUKE does not even have a line of dialog), is giving themselves another year to get a smarter sharper story line.

Not only that, but think about how many mysteries are in SW4. Even with exposition, there is a tremendous amount of story detail breezed past to spend time with characters. We don’t know about the Clone Wars, we don’t understand the Jedi, we don’t get a feeling for the Dark Side, we don’t know that Ben is only present to make sure Luke isn’t killed off, and etc.

This is the thing SW:TFA gets right for me: they spend time letting you love and discover these new characters. They don’t explain what the holes are there for.

They don’t know exactly what the holes mean yet. But unlike Lucas in the 70s, this is the opportunity to reveal a better story, a bigger story, that can take the franchise to a new level of cool.

Here’s some food for thought, because I’m a big fan of Ahsoka Tano. Wouldn’t you like to see the earliest parts of the timeline show up in the next future bits of story? Would it not be very cool if Qui-Gon Jinn was right? That Anakin was going to be essential in balancing the Force? Perhaps because his apprentice was going to be essential?

Would you not pay good money to see the Jedi get their shit together in the next two franchise movies? The Jedi Council failures of the past are obvious at this point. And SW: Return of the Jedi does not address those failures.

What if Luke’s journey off to find a better Jedi path crossed with Ahsoka’s own journey to find a better path? She teaches Luke some things and the next movies reveal a new path for the Jedi.

Hey, you read it here first.


Exported, Imported

This is a test. Putting my long standing posts about gaming and Zelazny’s Amber novels into this form is a bit clumsy.

I spent lots and lots of time getting my old blog to visually mesh with the material. Sadly, I do not have the time to fix the broken comments or old links there. This is sorta the backup plan.

I’m not sure it shall go forward. It is a test. Looks keen.

Thanks for asking!