“And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good–
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s been virtually impossible to escape the allure of Doctor Strange. For months, Marvel Studios, in classic grimoire fashion, has beguiled moviegoers with fantastical teaser trailers, but this past weekend, the anticipated film finally materialized in theaters, leaving many who saw it–including yours truly–simply spellbound. This marks the 14th film released within the realms of the MCU and stars English actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role.
Dr. Stephen Strange is an incredibly gifted but highly egotistical neurosurgeon who suffers a near fatal injury which robs him of his ability to perform his life’s work. Embarking on a soul-searching journey to heal himself both physically and emotionally, he encounters an ancient being who teaches him the ways of the mystical arts. Strange becomes much more than a simple legerdemain, rather he is transformed into the most powerful wizard in the cosmos, earning him the moniker, Sorcerer Supreme. Honestly, Sorcerer Deluxe just isn’t as satisfying. With his new-found knowledge, Strange is a formidable guardian, able to cast spells with the support of various ancient artifacts, as well as levitate with the help of–you guessed it–the Cloak of Levitation. If that wasn’t supernatural enough for you, the protagonist can also travel through time and space along the astral plane into other, sometimes darker realities.
Admittedly, I’m not an uber-nerd, therefore I wasn’t that familiar with all his limitless powers, assorted amulets, charms and talismans, so you can imagine my disappointment when I learned he doesn’t possess a magical “flute which had been passed down thousands of years ago from his great, great grandfather who was Irish”. Nevertheless, from the opening scenes of the film, it’s abundantly clear, audiences are in for one hell of a ocular joyride–as cityscapes and buildings defy the natural laws of physics, twisting and folding themselves in kaleidoscopic fashion. Make no mistake, Doctor Strange is entertaining and it’s worthy of the hype. The film pushes the visual envelope–at times reminiscent of an acid trip–courtesy of unbelievable CGI–but it’s ultimately hampered by the same predictable bag of magic tricks you’ve come to expect in Marvel films. There’s no disputing that the film will be widely-successful, but it will never come close to the awfully-good 1978 made-for-tv movie which is on another dimension of weird: “A drug person can cope with things like seeing their dead grandmother crawling up their leg with a knife in her teeth. But no one should be asked to handle this trip.”
Both films essentially serve as origin stories for the mystical superhero, but the similarities stop there. Even the titles are different: Doctor Strange (2016) and Dr. Strange (1978). This is probably so you won’t be disappointed when you rent the movie and have to sit through all those fake and fancy computerized effects. Present day audiences, particularly devotees of the superhero genre, have come to expect mind-blowing, yet believable, special effects–and if there ever was a film that absolutely required it, it would be Doctor Strange. However, if filmmakers rely too heavily on f/x and CGI, while sacrificing the story, then your movie goes from laudable to laughable in an instant. If Dr. Strange (1978) is successful in anything, it’s that it’s not hindered by neither a big budget for f/x, nor a compelling story–and that’s the key to unlocking its mojo.
From the opening credits, you get a real sense of the occultish oddities that exist in the film, then you hear the music. Far out, man! No other film possesses a more eclectic amalgamation of sounds, ranging from: Lethal Weapon-esque guitar riffs, jarring piano tones–as if someone with heavy fingers is mashing the keys, orchestral ballroom music, at times ballpark organs, emerging electro-pop synthesizers, and sounds akin to that of someone slowly squeezing the air out of a balloon. Then there’s the settings: the psychiatric hospital–where Strange works and where various doctors are incessantly being paged over the intercom–and Strange’s eventual HQ, the Sanctum Sanctorum, which is a cross between the Flintstones humble abode, with its bedrock walls, and the smarminess of the Playboy Mansion.
Strange doesn’t just fight off demonic and inter-dimensional threats, he works his magic in other ways–on the ladies. A little bit swinging superhero, a lot sexual predator. He sleeps with nurses, demonically possessed patients under his care, and almost an immortal enchantress. I can hear casting agents now, “We need a creepy actor who has the machismo of Tom Selleck and the boyish charm of Steve Guttenberg. Are either of them available? No? Ok. Hey you on the street-corner…yeah you…would you like to be in a movie?” I imagine this was the process for the remaining casting decisions as well. While the newest film is being criticized for its cultural whitewashing, the seventies version also suffers from casting problems too, namely that it unfortunately possesses a transient troupe of talentless thespians. Despite the vast differences, and the fact that Dr. Strange is clearly anchored to a bygone era, it doesn’t make the original film any less extraordinary. Watch it, you’ll see why. Will the same be said about Doctor Strange or any MCU film in forty years?
I’ve included the original movie in its entirety below for your viewing pleasure. If you live for riffing on awfully-fine movies as I do, then Dr. Strange ought to fill you with thaumaturgic delight. Afterwards, share your favorite moments from either film with me to continue the discussion.
On the other hand, if you’re thinking what in the world have I just watched, say the following incantation.
“In the name of Cosmic Mercy
and the Lotus heart of peace
Let remembrance of this vanish
Let your pain now find release“