I really enjoyed Marvel's latest superhero film DOCTOR STRANGE but I'm used to that feeling. What I'm not used to is the feeling I had BEFORE I sat down to watch it, which was dread that there was no way to make the world of Stephen Strange as interesting as Iron Man, Captain
Daredevil. That has been the problem with Strange in comic book form for
decades now with Marvel never able to get his title to last more than a few low
sales years before cancellation. It's difficult to craft the kind of tales
comic book readers want when, at the end of the day, the solution is usually
just magic-ing the threat away. Great Doctor Strange stories have been told
over the years but sustaining the character over time becomes an exercise in
bigger and more esoteric villains that drift further away from the concrete
'punch'em in the face' reality that superhero fans crave.
Adding to this long term problem is the natural tendency toward metaphysical ideas in the Doctor Strange storylines and nothing screams action less than contemplation of why we do what we do in this dark and mystical world. This tends to limit the fanbase for the character somewhat and I feared that Marvel might lose it's bet that Strange and his world could be brought to the screen effectively.
Turns out I was wrong but in an odd way.
It seems that Marvel's solution to what I saw as a problem was to turn into the slide and simply amp up the speed and tension. They, in effect, used Strange in the same way they use Captain America by positioning him as a stranger (heh, heh) out of his depth, tossed into a war for which he has little previous experience. Therefore, all the mystical knowledge becomes battle training and the sorcerous threat is not just to the world, but to Strange personally. This puts our nascent hero in the rank of new recruit to an old war bringing fresh eyes to a conflict that he somehow might be able to finish. Sound like any good comic book stories you know?
Of course, this recasts Stephen Strange as much more of a man of action and violence than previous incarnations but it still remains true to the heart of him as a character. I might have been surprised to see Doctor Strange fighting physically as well as magically but the film blends the two together well and impressed me with the clever ways the mystic arts fold into the previously established cinematic world Marvel has built. Yes, the acting is good. Yes, the visuals are incredible (as they would have to be to approximate what Steve Ditko drew in the 1960's). Yes, the world building is stunning. But what I was most impressed by was the attention paid to making various characters both identifiable as people with motivations and as logical parts of a universe that also contains The Hulk and Spider-Man. This careful scripting does a great job of presenting lots of moving parts that, when they start to go out of synch, seem like sad inevitabilities given what we know about those parts. Not everyone fights for the same reason.
Even if DOCTOR STRANGE had been a failure I knew that by simply attempting to bring him to the screen Marvel was going to move into a different area of storytelling for the universe they have crafted. Since it is a success, but one that bends Strange's reality to a more manageable (profitable?) track, I suspect that more of the stable of Marvel magic-users will start to appear in one form or another. I'm sure they will be fitted into to a warrior mold as well, but it is my hope that maybe one of them will be allowed to be just as damned strange (!) as his two dimensional original without becoming an ersatz Steve Rogers. That could be really interesting.