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.

GM: grand ma?

So you’ve known one certainly. Maybe you’ve been one.
In the misty beginning, there was the DM and it was good.
But unto the third generation, there was the GM and it was better.
And yea, tho’ it was often professed that the GM was wise and puissant, when the drapes were pulled back, ’twas not writ that such was man or woman, only that the GM be crafty and fair.


sunboy says, “that Zelazny chap was good”

Amber: is it all GM Advice? – theRPGsite
[on running the game] The part of Amber that’s hard will be hard if you are running Amber, D&D, VtM, WtF (I love the acronym), Over the Edge or even the bloody excellent Risus. The nice plotline, the believable situations and, most important of all, the NPCs.
The system, as always, is a matter of taste.
And, as for playing it… well, I think playing it may be harder than running it, if you are talking of the “traditional” competitive playstyle, and if it’s well directed. What may make Amber seem harder, it’s the fact that, let’s face it, if you are playing D&D with some at least barely experienced players, and the DM is not a complete retard, it can be fun. Well, now, with Amber, you need the GM to be good for it to be fun. And I’m not talking about him making lightning fast on-the-spot calls in a battle. That you learn. I’m talking of him being able to really make you believe that that redhead bastard is telling you the truth, to get you thinking, “oh, boy, how I’d like to screw Flora”, to play a charming Bleys who doesn’t stop smiling while making a brochette out of you, to portrait an unreadable yet menacing and deeply human Benedict, and of course, if Corwin is around, to stick without guilt 23 feet of trouble up your proverbial arse. Mate, that Zelazny chap was good.


GMing apprentice craft

Quite by accident (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) a spambot directed me to check in with the 20×20 Room where I found the old entry on Game Craft regarding lack of support for how to make a game work once you know the rules.
What’s that? You imagine that once you know the rules, or have read the game book from cover to cover you just need players and a bunch of game prep?
Uh, no. If only it were that simple.
You see, GMs make mistakes, forget their own maxims, and even misjudge the ‘fun’ in every session at least once. Every session. “At play” stuff most rulebooks ignore.
When was the last time you read rules for ‘fixing’ a bad GM call?
I ran a D&D game that lasted off and on for twenty years and I blew up the campaign with an error in judgment I didn’t see coming. Isn’t hindsight a marvelous thing?
Trust me, I didn’t handle it so well in actual practice.


GMing craft and Player narrative power

from a forum question elsewhere:

The situation:
Amber is under attack. The enemy is ruthless and inhuman. Amber City is in flames, and one of the PC’s is in the thick of things. He’s hunting through the streets with a company of soldiers looking for the enemy, but not currently engaged in battle.

GM: “A building to your right collapses, sending flaming debris into the alley. The debris falls up against the next building along, an orphanage. You can hear the screams of terrified children inside.”
Player: “To hell with the battle, I go into the burning building and save them.”
GM: “Okay, you’re hunting through the building, but it’s rapidly filling with smoke and you can still hear coughing. You’ve saved some, but there’s still some more here. The danger is increasing.”
Player: “No, you don’t understand. I save them all. End of scene. I don’t want to play in a game where children die on-camera, so I save them all, and we move on.”

What do you, as GM, do?


radioactive analysis by Laws

See Page XX – an RPG column by Robin D Laws
In Dying Earth’s persuasion contests, the disastrous result is infinitely less permanent than death. You may enter a ridiculous wager in which you’ll likely lose a few coins – already an eminently transitory commodity. You might open a door you don’t want to open, or be forced to wear a ridiculous hat. In short, your PC will suffer embarrassment.
Seems a significantly smaller setback than death, doesn’t it? But roleplaying culture, or at least a vociferous strain of it, bitterly resists any such mechanic. Control of a PC’s actions must always remain in the player’s hands. Any rule that flouts this, including Pendragon’s trait mechanic and its many descendants, is anathema.
The answer to this conundrum lies in that emotional center of the roleplaying experience, power fantasy. We play adventure games not only for excitement, but for a sense of larger-than-life mastery and control. To many players, the possibility of death is just part of the bargain. Besides, the rules are skewed so that their PCs almost never die – the bulk of the gasping and expiring is left to hordes of orcs, goons, and space mutants, all of them rich in experience points.
To many players, loss of control is much worse than death, because it’s much less imaginary. If Sir Gilbert gets impaled by at the gnarled hands of an ogre chieftain or is felled by poison gas, that’s an extreme event that has little emotional reality to it. Episodes of embarrassment, on the other hand, are something we all suffer, on an all-too-frequent basis.
To experience a split between one’s conscious desires and one’s emotional impulses, to behave in one way while knowing intellectually that you ought to be doing anything but, is to be human. For certain of us, though, the experience is so highly charged it’s positively radioactive.

Aha. Oh, does this relate well to the Social attribute debate I had with the GOO forum.

‘Kill my character, but don’t embarrass me at an imaginary social event. ‘Cause I know I can outwit any NPC inna place.’

At the same time, I like the comments on livejournal here about ‘equal risk’ being introduced to a situation rather than ‘zero sum’. One of the parameters of Social is that idea of an audience, a larger community, and that consequence can rebound on either participant.
I’ve yet to see a nice way of adding heavy Player input to light system input judged against social backdrop to resolve these things in a way that each Player can easily niche.
That is frustrating.