This movie had some gorgeous special effects and I got the impression they really tried to do their best with the comic’s origin story by making it a little less “white guy wanders into brown country, crowned Best At Magic seconds later”, and as we all know skipping origin stories is against the law so there had to be something, so it’s not too bad as a ride all things considered.
Once you hit the end and think about it, it’s otherwise a disastrous mess of a film. (Hey, is it kind of racist that we’re having an Tibetan hand the reins over to a white dude? I know, let’s make them a Celtic woman so now it’s a white person passing power to a white person!)
I actually liked the character best in the beginning of the film – he’s an arrogant asshole, but he’s obviously worked hard to get there and he’s saving people’s lives. His attitude isn’t unearned. He certainly has piles of natural talent but his profession is one that still requires enormous work to succeed at.
He smashes up his hands and loses his surgeon abilities, which is the start of the whole humbling and learning arc, except somehow this makes him more arrogant. He spends all his money going to India for Eastern mumbojumbo, tells the person he wants the Eastern mumbojumbo, then throws a tantrum when he hears it’s Eastern mumbojumbo (that is honestly 90% decently non-mumbojumbo with just a dash of anti-intellectualism in accordance with Hollywood mandates). Jesus guy what were you expecting? Then once he’s convinced that no, they’re right, he still keeps demanding to know why he should listen to anything they say.
This might be because the movie doesn’t seem too clear on what, exactly, he’s being punished for. Is it for thinking he’s precisely as good as he actually is? Is it for getting into a dumb car accident? The part where he repeatedly throws tantrums seems like a good reason, but the movie never punishes him for that. It’s brought up a few times that Strange walks a certain balance as a surgeon where he won’t take either easy cases or hopeless ones, which means his life-saving is wholly about his own ego and would make a lot of sense as his central sin, but he never comes to any conclusion on that. The only thing the movie ever is able to commit on is the arrogance thing, and it does that by having him dial up the arrogance at random, self-destructive times, then hoping we’re desensitized enough by that we won’t notice he’s still an arrogant twit the rest of the time.
By and large, the story is just Entitled White Guy Thinks He’s Better Than You And Rules Don’t Apply To Him, Turns Out To Be Totally Right. He initially struggles with magic…but he’s brand-new. There’s no sign he’s any slower at this than anyone else, and as soon as he starts doing magic he rapidly outpaces everyone else. And the reason he’s even there is because one of the characters argues they can’t afford not to teach someone with such incredible potential.
Later on he’s injured and teleports to the hospital for his not-girlfriend to save him, which could be pretty powerful in how he previously was all about being the best doctor ever and lone wolfing his way through life, except that she, the doctor who works the ER all day long, is so rattled she can barely hold the equipment for a simple chest draining and needs him, Mr. Doesn’t Work ER, Picks And Chooses Cases, Also Literally Watching Himself Die After Seeing Other People Murdered Before His Eyes, to walk her through what she needs to do. The big moment of him being the bigger person is when he gives a scalpel to another doctor, one who actually did fuck up and nearly kill someone but who has a dick while chicks are used to constant, casual dismissal. (And of course he heads right back without letting her come with or learn any magic, because hey, why should she get anything?)
Although it’s stated a couple times that he needs to listen and learn, we’re never presented with any point he actually needs to follow the rules. “I want the books on astral projection!” “No, you’re not ready yet.” “I’ll break in, steal books, and instantly master it!” “That’s so cool of you, have more books.” We’re not even told why the librarian didn’t want him to have the books. It’s a rule that exists solely so he can flip it off, and when he does, he’s rewarded with compliments and more stuff because wow, he’s so cool and great at this! We also learn that the Ancient One is breaking the rules by using dark energy to extend her life…but how is it breaking the rules? Why is that bad? Is it something that’s hard to do and failure has bad enough side effects she didn’t trust anyone else to pull it off, or does it do something horrible to you in the process? No answers. Strange is told that messing with time magic is dangerous and can have bad effects, but none of them ever happen and no one even suggests maybe letting someone more experienced run the time magic.
Really, none of it’s coherent. Only one character makes an actual argument for any side, and it’s the villain. He lays out how by Earth going into the dark universe, death and entropy and suffering will all be defeated, and that this is good because humanity is about challenging the cruelties of nature. That is a fucking awesome argument. The argument against this is that no, death’s great, also natural law! …also the dark dimension will be eternal suffering BUT MOSTLY THE NATURAL LAW THING. Natural law can go fuck itself. How does this interact with the Ancient One living for extra long? So other characters can call her a hypocrite and make it her fault the movie’s villain appears and the end-of-movie new villain appears, because women with power must, at best, be morally ambiguous and miserable, and everyone who trusts or respects them needs to have their eyes opened.
What’s really frustrating is it’s a really gorgeous movie and it shouldn’t have been that hard to make the plot either coherent or else get completely out of the way of the fight scenes. The idea the dark dimension isn’t horrible is brought up at the same time we’re told the Ancient One can’t be trusted, but it’s not in service of anyone checking the situation out, not even just Strange shrugging and pointing out their astral third eye stuff lets them glimpse the place and it’s horrible and evil. His counterargument is just “okay, but your eyes look fucked up, and beauty = goodness.” followed by a tantrum about not trusting the Ancient One that somehow doesn’t involve any uncertainty about what she’s saying about the dark dimension being evil.
Really, all that needed to be done was say Strange wasn’t the best at everything ever. He’s a really great surgeon, the reason he freaks out over losing his hands is because he wants to be someone who matters, so he throws himself into the magic rather than tantruming all the time about how he didn’t sign up to help anyone with the incredible magic he was taught for free and why should he care the entire world is about to end and he’s going to be dragged to hell with the rest of them? (Also the bad guys are trying to murder-suicide the world because death is the enemy.) Then he ends up in charge at the end because the bad guys slaughter everyone else first, since everyone else is more experienced and they assume Strange can’t do anything to stop them (they probably don’t even know Strange is around at first, he’s so new – and having everyone have extended life would also help in general, with the idea that adding people is very rare. You can still say Strange is rare and special for having magic capacity at all in that case, and it makes them less dicks for being so exclusive.). For that matter, the movie appears to end with almost everyone dead, so Strange can get the New York magic sanctum because that’s actually the best defended and safest while the older people get the others (and for god’s sake, make it more than three clustered around the northern half of the globe- what sort of magic shield only covers half the planet? If Dormammu ever figures out he can just attack from the south, we’re doomed.) That then frees him up to bop around with the other superheroes in this reality, which is what people want to see, while keeping the cosmic bits valid because the other guys are dealing with the higher level threats. And you can always have a second dramatic cataclysm that kills those guys off next movie if people are too outraged that New York doesn’t have every last superhero.
Also Strange should absolutely have been a black guy (see, that’d explain a bit about the fear of failure we’re told he supposedly has) instead of a black guy vouching for him then turning evil, OR we could do a meta reversal where he’s Asian in race but his family’s been in America for generations and he’s thoroughly naturalized. And maybe the Ancient One could’ve been Inuit – I’m assuming they were trying to make a point by having the person currently in charge not of local ethnicity, but saying things are multicultural works way better when the cultures aren’t all shades of white. If we absolutely can’t move away from the main character getting handed everything because of his innate talent making him better than everyone else, can it at least not be an arrogant white guy every time? (And maybe not have everyone but the Ancient One be a guy while we’re at it.)