Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange begins with a bonkers fight between magic-wielders that gives a glimpse of the inventive action we’ll be seeing in the rest of the film. It sets the tone of the movie—dark and in places violent, but with loads of awesomeness—and before we even meet most of the main characters, we’re eager to learn about this new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we trust the movie to teach us.

 

And teach us it does. There is a ton of exposition in this movie. More than half of the conversations in the movie are about communicating plot or worldbuilding information to a character and to the audience.  It should, by all rights, either bore or confuse us. But I found myself enthralled throughout the entire movie. So much so that I forgot to take mental notes for this review and had to take stock after it was over—a feat only a handful of movies have managed since I started writing reviews.

 

What is this movie’s secret? How does it introduce what is essentially an all-new, complex world, with rules different than our own, without alienating viewers?

 

Partly because, while the events in the movie involve fantastic and imaginative magic, the characters almost without exception are grounded. Their emotions and motivations are familiar to all of us. These are people who have known pain and regret, people whose pride has been or is hurting them, people who are trying to do what they think is right or what they feel they must to survive. There’s even one beautiful scene that made me empathize with the villain.

 

The acting helps. Most of the speaking roles are taken by Oscar-nominated actors and actresses, and I didn’t feel a single performance was phoned in. Cumberbatch cemented himself as the only Doctor Strange that I think of when I hear the name, and Chiwetel Ejiofor played his role with a sincerity that I found heartbreaking in places.

 

The standout performance was Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. I wasn’t expecting to say that going in, between the casting controversy and the failure of the trailers to convince me that she was a fit. But she had a presence that kept my eyes on her and made me pay attention to every single word she had to say.

 

Having great characters and fantastic actors helps to mitigate many of the problems that such an outlandish story can create in terms of keeping viewers invested. But instead of settling for not bored, the makers of Doctor Strange worked to make sure that their audience was enthralled.

 

For those of you who just came here for the review, and don’t particularly care about the nuts and bolts of writing, here is your stop. The movie is awesome, is great in Imax, and is the most fun 3-D experience I’ve had so far in theaters. If you like superhero movies, you’ll love this one.

 

For those still with me, how does Doctor Strange keep viewers informed and invested throughout the movie? By following foundational rules of writing Fantasy.

 

It starts us off with some action that shows us how cool their magic is, a promise that we’ll get to see more of it soon. As we follow the pre-origin-story life of Doctor Strange for a bit, that magic stays in the back of our minds. What happened in that scene? And why? What did the different magics do? We have mysteries to ponder, and to get excited about seeing solved.

 

That leads me to another thing it did right. It throws magic in our faces, but it doesn’t explain what or why (outside of seeing how said magic is used and what basic effect it seems to have). It lets us be confused when we are supposed to be confused, lets us feel in the beginning that this is something different than what we’ve seen in the MCU before. Then it teaches us, bit by bit, until the viewer can not only recognize each kind of magic without being told, but can also anticipate certain spells and try to piece together a solution based on what they have learned. It welcomes us into this world and rewards us for paying attention.

 

Whenever the movie gives us a rule—for instance, what a certain spell or item does—it sticks to it. It remembers that this is a rule of the world, and it can’t change. Action A has effect B, every single time. Other movies in the MCU could learn a thing or two—looking at you, Ant-Man. Some of these rules are explored in great depth, in ingenious ways I never would have guessed.  Some, on the other hand, still have room to be explored further, which gets me excited for Strange’s future appearances in both the inevitable sequel and the larger MCU.

 

None of the information shared is just one character telling another character something so that the audience can have the information. It’s always presented in a way that feels natural the characters will be talking about this. The information is always given in such a way that we learn something about the character providing it. The way it is provided helps to develop the tone for the scene, or foreshadow something later, or refer to events we’ve seen. In short, the information is presented in a way that feels real.

 

The final, and perhaps most important piece that Doctor Strange gets right is that, while it starts us off unsure of what’s happening, and while it only gives us answers in a breadcrumb way that keeps us salivating for more, it makes CERTAIN that we know what we need to know for the next scene to make sense.

 

Is Doctor Strange a perfect movie? No. Is it the best movie Marvel has ever made? Not quite. But it is a master’s class in exposition. And even days afterward, I still find myself happy that we’re living in a world where this movie could be made.

 

SPOILERS

 

Minor gripes:

Nobody pointing out how dangerous and stupid it was for him to keep the Eye of Agamotto on him while fighting. He’s a newbie, facing down a well-trained set of villains, and nobody suggests that he shouldn’t keep it on him? I realize there isn’t much time between fights in the second half, but come on.

Strange’s ascension to Sorcerer Supreme is very sudden. I’m sure there must be dozens of surviving members that are more qualified as of the end of the movie. I understand that’s where he’s going to end up, but it seems like it’s only been a few months. Having to accelerate him into position for Infinity War is probably the culprit here. Minorly annoying, but unavoidable.

He gets stabbed in the chest, almost dies, gets shocked in a way that should have killed him, and then he finishes the rest of the movie without resting? I find that unlikely. I haven’t found a workaround for this plot hole yet. I just choose to ignore it because I enjoy the movie so much.

 

Ok, now that those are done.

 

The rewind scene at the end! The one apprentice getting sucked up into the aquarium! The guy launched out of his car rewinding back into it! That whole scene is delicious. I wish it could have been longer, but it must have been ridiculous to make, both cost-wise, and logistically. I’m just grateful it happened.

 

The cape was great. Funny, but also super-violent. I love that Strange is so stubborn he ends up fighting with it.

 

The moment when Kaecilius is in the restraints, and he and Strange talk. The look of recognition on Strange’s face as he realizes that he very well could have become Kaecilius. The absolute understanding, and yet the horror. And the way that scene ended. Just amazing.

 

I couldn’t tell you how good the martial arts aspect of the movie is, because we got to the movies just in time for trailers, and only the front row was available. Imax 3-D from the front row? I might have missed some things, visually.

 

I…just realize that we walked out before the second end-credit scene. I’m sad now.

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Asymmetry in Magic

One of the best aspects of any Fantasy story is the magic system. As a writer, the fun is in opening up that toy chest and playing around with what’s inside. As a reader, it’s in following along in breathless anticipation for the mayhem that the writer has in store. This was the reason we got into the genre in the first place. Magical combat is the place to have fun.

Sometimes that means setting up a line of magical troops on either side and having them march toward each other. That can be fine; for the most part, that’s what the combat is in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Channelers typically fight other channelers. Sometimes you have to write battles that take place this way, and most stories contain at least a couple of fights that fit into this style.

When magic this way, though, it can easily become a war of attrition. Whoever has the greatest strength or the most troops is the winner. If you aren’t careful, that can make your work feel typical, generic, and even boring.

You can sometimes avoid that problem by giving the magic wielders secondary objectives to set them apart. Maybe magical artifacts that give their wielders an edge, as the Wheel of Time does. Maybe the magic users find alternative uses for their powers. Maybe the quality setting them apart is how far the characters are willing to go in order to win.

But you could also design your magic systems asymmetrically.

Imagine two mages fighting in a city. You could make both of these mages throw fire at each other, like some demented game of dodgeball. And that could be fun. But you could also have one of them use fire, and have the other create magical barriers. Suddenly, instead of having marching lines of equal combatants, you have a fight between sides that are wildly mismatched, each scrabbling for an advantage.

Brandon Sanderson is great at this. In Mistborn, he has three different magic systems playing off of each other, and even has trained non-magic-users that can hold their own and be a legitimate threat to the people who use the magic. In a way, Allomancy from his Mistborn series is founded on this concept; even if there are two Mistborn in a fight, the odds that they have the same metals to burn are unlikely. The story is filled with battles where only one side is using a particular magic, and the other has to compensate.

If you use this method, you can still create secondary objectives for your magic-wielders to take the fights to the next level. What if the barrier mage is trying to protect the town during the battle? Does the fire magic splash off of the barriers so that the mage has to be careful to keep collateral damage down? Maybe the fire-wielder is looking for an artifact in the town, but the barrier mage would rather the town burn than the artifact be captured? Then the fire mage must use extreme precision to keep the fires away from the places the artifact would be. As you can see, the possibilities for the fight explode when you have two unequal opponents battling with very different abilities.

What are some of your favorite examples of asymmetric warfare in Fantasy?