Fantasy fans are living through a kind of attenuated Golden Age when it comes to TV and the cinema. Until the late '80s and perhaps even beyond, Fantasy as a vehicle for Great Stories and Characters that could be taken to heart was a genre strictly confined to the printed page. Almost all cinematic fantasy works (and it's the exceptions that make the rule) fell into the category of cheaply made, silly, embarrassing nonsense.
It wasn't Star Wars that changed all that; it was, at first, Terry Gilliam and Jim Henson; and later on Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
The combination of computers with Hollywood's sudden realization that Fantasy can Make Money has allowed a situation to arise where Fantasy Fans, just like people who love books in all other genres, can have the regular privilege of having their favorite characters, novels, stories and series raped and fucked over by incompetent Hollywood morons.
Doctor Strange is no exception. The film's production team paid a huge amount of lip service to Steve Ditko prior to the film's release, but now that it's headed to home video it will become obvious to a much wider audience that the film contains precious little of Ditko's genius, while placing the Good Doctor -- a distinctly non-violent hero in his own right -- into the context of a very typical fantasy martial arts slugfest.
Understand that I am coming from a place of having impossibly high hopes, as a fan of the character and the comics since the mid-70s. Prior to the film's release, I wrote and published a longish article for the first issue of my "bookazine," The Sanctum, a kind of melange of tarot and culture. The bookazine itself was named for Doctor Strange's Sanctum Santorum, and the article gave a basic history of the character and his creation by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, while expressing my hopes for the film.
When the first trailer was released, my hopes were dashed. Magic had been replaced with martial-arts mayhem and M.C. Escher-inspired kaleidoscope gimmickry that was frankly lifted from Christopher Nolan's Inception. The intense originality of the comic strip appeared to be completely squandered. Subsequent trailers and the release of the finished film itself bore my feelings out on this. I simply could not bear to pay Hollywood my hard-earned money to see my hopes spat upon.
With the Home Video release on the horizon, the film is already making it out there into the torrent-sphere, and having exhausted myself shoveling out after a succession of winter storms dumped a solid four feet on most of the state, not excluding my house, I sat down last night with Hollywood's iteration of Doctor Strange, expecting to hate it.
I didn't hate it, much to my surprise. I'm actually happier with it than I thought or believed I could be — but that’s not to say that I’m happy with it. Understanding now that all the boring M. C. Escher / Inception-copying kaleidoscopic crapola takes place in a mirror universe makes it more palatable, but it’s still a failure of the imagination, especially when Doctor Strange comes with such a rich history of imagery built-in, any of which would have been more original and more impressive onscreen than what we actually got.
But here’s the main thing: MAGIC IS NOT A WAY TO MAKE MARTIAL ARTS FIGHT SCENES LOOK FLASHIER. Every single punch that is thrown in this movie, every single kick, is a direct insult to the character, to the audience, and to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. In just eight words:
DOCTOR STRANGE IS NOT ABOUT RUNNING AND PUNCHING.
Except the movie is full of it. There is much more martial arts than magic on display while the world spins dizzyingly around the actors; and when magic is shown it's made to fit around the bare necessities of the plot. The ability to travel between dimensions is even tied to a device Wholly Created For This Movie, a thing called a "Sling Ring," which exists solely as a deus ex machina so that a character can be trapped if they lose it. That dopey god damn "Sling Ring" pissed me off almost more than anything else in the movie. Just Anyone can surf anywhere in the Multiverse as long as they have one. Give one to Jackie Chan, and you would be unable to tell the difference between a Jackie Chan movie and this one.
Thank goodness for the actors, the actors do actually sell its somehow. Benny Cummerbund looks great in his costume, and the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One is a gamble that pays off. But I hope to heck we’ve seen the last of that generic Hollywood girlfriend, who is nothing more than a plot convenience. If I don’t see Clea in the next Doctor Strange movie, I’m going to be even more pissed off than I am now.
I was hoping for something that made the '70s Doctor Strange TV pilot obsolete. In the end, this Doctor Strange, barring only the casting and the scale, is no better than the 70s TV Pilot. It’s just flawed in different ways, and in ways that are reflective of the different times in which each version was made. In the end, we still have the books... and the books remain the place to go to meet the good Doctor and his twilight world in the light in which they were made to be seen.