Marvel’s 14th film, Doctor Strange, is all about flipping off the establishment.
After the titular Doctor Stephen Strange, the unlikeable Tony Stark of surgery, gets in a car accident that utterly destroys his hands, he scours the earth for a solution to his perpetually quaking fingers. His search brings him to the doorstep of The Ancient One and her sorcerer acolytes, who offer a solution to the limits of Strange’s body via the expansion of his mind, which it turns out, involves asking a lot of questions.
Nothing is sacred in the world of Doctor Strange. The culture of sorcery he immerses himself in is founded on questioning and redefining the rules of time and space in ways that leave the screen so cluttered with 70s prog rock special effects that it is legitimately impossible to take everything in.
But, like, in a cool way.
To The Ancient One and her ilk it seems the only certainty is the need to question anything deemed certain. Much to The Ancient One’s chagrin that rule doesn’t stop at her doorstep.
On his quest Doctor Strange is not only forced to question time and space, he’s forced to question authority and orthodoxy. He’s brought into a mystical microcosm that has torn apart the constraints of the larger world around it without ever taking too close a look at itself.
Intentionally or not Doctor Strange proves to be an incredibly appropriate superhero movie for November 2016. Its hero is ultimately tasked with never becoming stagnant. With never clinging to a worldview for the sake of towing the line. When his world as a surgeon is crushed around him he is presented with an alternative that shows him the flaws of his old life. But that alternative is not without flaws. Nor is the alternative to that alternative. Doctor Strange’s strongest attribute isn’t his newly-acquired understanding of the mystic arts or his newly-acquired ability to thinly veil his own jackassery, it’s his insistence on never taking any one sound bite from any one talking head at face value.
But despite the thematic through line of obliterating conventions and questioning dogma in spectacular 3D glory the film falls back on a particularly vexing trope I’d thought we’d moved past. The love interest for the sake of a love interest.
Rachel McAdams plays Dr. Christine Palmer, an ER physician who has a strained, romantic history with Stephen Strange. Rachel McAdams is great. She’s Rachel McAdams. True Detective Season 2. Spotlight. The script for Doctor Strange relegates her to what feels like a mark on some sort of blockbuster checklist you’d think the Sorcerer Supreme would have dismantled a thousand times over by now. This isn’t simply the case of an inexplicable kiss, à la Jurassic World or Civil War. It isn’t just the romance that feels artificial, it’s the entire character. Dr. Palmer has limited screen time and even more limited impact on the story overall. McAdams does as much as any performer could in the limited space the script gives her, but at best her character is written into the film as a benchmark audiences can use to tell Doctor Strange isn’t as big of a dick as he used to be. She ultimately feels like the girl shoehorned into a “boy” movie so that girlfriends will go too, a notion I’d hoped characters like Peggy Carter or Gamora or Black Widow had rendered obsolete. She isn’t given an arc or even afforded sufficient time to believably react to and acquaint herself with Strange’s new abilities (her introduction to and acceptance of Strange’s mystical powers is rushed to the point of feeling like an encounter with a new hair cut) and the movie suffers for it. That this is the capacity to which an actress of McAdam’s caliber joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe is upsetting, and a waste of talent. The debut of the new Wonder Woman trailer before the movie didn’t exactly lessen the blow.
Doctor Strange is a lot of fun. Its special effects are seriously next level. Its humor is on point. Its Mads is Mikkelsen. Strange’s consistent questioning of authority, establishments and institutions gives him, and his debut film, a unique and thought-provoking flavor. But an otherwise fun and exciting film is left with a few scuffs by the conventions it didn’t bother questioning. With any luck little kids will leave Doctor Strange with a healthy skepticism and a simulated LSD-trip hangover rather than antiquated ideas of gendered film.