The absolute best thing that Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016) got right is a satisfying ending.
Two problems that have been wearing superhero franchises especially thin for me is firstly, the use of extremely poorly characterised megalomaniacs with an inexplicable obsession with world domination as the ultimate villain.
My list of non-character megalomaniacs, in no particular order, include:
- Ultron from Age of Ultron (2015)
- Thanos from The Avengers MCU (2012- )
- Malekith from Thor: The Dark World (2013)
- Ronan & his boss, Thanos, from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- Kaecilius’ & his boss, Dormammu, from Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016)
- Apocalypse from X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
- Mandarin from Iron Man 3 (2013)
- Enchantress from Suicide Squad (2016)
- Talia al Ghul (Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter) from The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
- Galactus from Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
… I’m sure there are others I’ve missed…
The list of things I do not like about these antagonists is extensive. They are just so poorly characterised in that they are flat characters lacking in nuance making them very unsympathetic and way too easy to dislike, and worst of all, their motivations are oftentimes unclear. They do things because it is in their nature or because of some prophecy.
Incidentally, I have to mention, this is also why I liked Civil War (2016) so much, precisely because it did not feature some CGI giant villain with a world-domination complex. It was on a smaller scale, and featured a very personal apocalypse – a collapse of friendships between some really powerful individuals. I think the personal nature of the conflict made the whole film so much more relatable.
Anyway, the second problem for me with a lot of these superhero films is that when the villains are so comically (hur hur… no pun intended) overpowered, protagonists tend to experience sudden and inexplicable power-ups. These excessively convenient power-ups often stem from the triggering of some hidden ability just so they can defeat these overpowered world-gobbling villains.
For example, from the above list, in Suicide Squad, how did Diablo’s pyrokinesis suddenly transform him into some Aztec/Mayan fire god? They probably thought it was so clever misleading and misdirecting the audience with phrases like “it’s a curse” to make us all think that Diablo was just being melodramatic when it was a literal curse he carried around that gave him his powers. To the unsuspecting audience, it’s like someone flipped a literal “God-mode On” switch with a cheat code in the final confrontation that allowed Diablo to incinerate Enchantress’ brother, another ancient god.
The reason why this didn’t work for me is because the basis of the conceit is the exclusion of the audience. The effect of the reveal is that it then makes the audience feel like the joke is on them for not getting it. But the thing is, at the end of the day, you don’t want to alienate your audience, you want to bring them into the fold and get them intimately acquainted with your characters so they want to know more.
In another example from the above list, how about when Jean Grey could suddenly control her Phoenix power to defeat Apocalypse? Anyone who did not watch the cartoon or read the comic books would be left horribly confused and wondering what the flash of fire bird in the middle of the throw down with Apocalypse was all about… Again, the audience is being alienated.
The thing I appreciated most about Marvel’s Doctor Strange is that there was no convenient solution at the end of the film. The answer to defeating the over-powered CGI intergalactic being, Dormammu, was carefully woven very early on into the plot through the use of visual motif (repeated shots of Strange’s broken watch), parallel fight scenes between Strange and Kaecilius, and later on Strange and Dormammu, and some fairly consistent characterisation of Stephen Strange (Strange’s ego as his sole motivation to win and his eventual acceptance of having to lose to win). It was also especially pleasurable to see a villain being defeated with cool logic instead of a CGI fest of flashing colours (not that there was any lack of this in Doctor Strange…)
The thing about using rules that have been clearly established in the movie/narrative universe is that the viewer feels like s/he has been rewarded for having invested time and energy paying attention to the twists and turns of the plot. Consequently, the audience feels like s/he is being treated like an intelligent being rather than a pair of eyeballs to flash some CGI colours at. And therein lies the pleasure in a process-driven, tightly plotted storyline.
I appreciated even more that the logical coherence of the film did not stop at the level of plot but stretched to a visual coherence in the CGI as well. In the trailer, a lot of the special effects didn’t just remind me of Inception (2010) but also of someone turning a kaleidoscope. But as I watched the film and paid attention to its rhetoric about study and enlightenment, spirituality, religion, and math (programming) and magic (spells), I began to think of how in Islamic art, because the face of god cannot be represented, the presence of the divine is indicated through the perfect alignment of repeated patterns of different geometric shapes without any gaps or overlaps. This sort of art is called tessellation. And the CGI effects the film chose to go with bore a strong resemblance to it. Personally, I thought this was a good choice and a good fit between the visuals and the narrative/thematic thrust of the film.
Some examples of Islamic tessellation in mosques:
As a final note on Doctor Strange, did anyone else get the feeling that when the Ancient One was giving Strange a run down of what’s what this must have been what Loki’s early magic lessons were like? Cuz all that talk about spells and programmes and the multiverse reminded me of the bifrost and how magic is just undiscovered science, but also of Loki’s ability to world walk using pathways along the branches of yggdrasil.