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"Doctor Strange": Marvel's DTV Supreme

Except, possibly, for Forbush Man, Marvel could scarcely have come up with a more unlikely candidate for the DTV movie treatment than Doctor Strange. Strange is probably the biggest Marvel name I know next to nothing about, owing largely to the fact that he rarely appeared in crossovers in the series I read. Add that to my general dislike of the arbitrary nature of magical powers and you get an idea of how low my expectations were for this latest home video hero. Imagine my great surprise then to find that Doctor Strange may just be the best Marvel DTV yet.

Image, Ultimate Avengers II, and The Invincible Iron Man) all had their strong points, but character development wasn’t one of them. The Avengers films had such unwieldy casts that there wasn’t time to pay much more than lip service to their numerous issues, a shame given the rich potential. Tony Stark received a more thorough study, but his imperturbable billionaire shell is cracked only momentarily.

The choice of adversaries was another weak spot in these films. The Avengers were thrown up against generic green aliens, and bizarrely Iron Man faced living statues. These villains were not only dreadfully dull but also poor sparring partners.

Thankfully Doctor Strange corrects both of these problems. Dr. Stephen Strange is introduced as a self-absorbed neurosurgeon distinctly lacking the human touch. One day he grudgingly consults on a group of comatose children suffering from terrifying nightmares. Touching one, Strange shares her hellish visions, and later they overwhelm him, causing a terrible car wreck. His hands and livelihood shattered, he spends himself into poverty on unsuccessful exotic treatments.

In his darkest hour he receives an invitation to a remote temple in Tibet where it’s said he can be healed. There, trained by the monks, he learns much about his past guilt and future potential. He has little time to waste, for the magically empowered monks are preparing for a final showdown with the demonic servants of Strange arch-nemesis Dormammu, a long banished evil entity seeking to return from extra-dimensional exile and enslave Earth.

Everybody was kung fu fighting…

Like Stark in The Invincible Iron Man, Strange starts off vain and emotionally distant, but in this case we later get to see the trauma that understandably made him that way. Rather than vomit up this backstory in one leaden chunk, it’s teasingly parceled out over a long stretch. His abrupt and devastating fall from grace is quite affecting for superhero animation. Not even Peter Parker has hit rock bottom this hard. With ragged hair and tattered clothing Strange is forced to go hat in hand to ask his embittered ex-girlfriend for airfare to Tibet, where he endures unending physical torment.

This sort of compelling character detail is exactly why the Spider-Man films have proven so popular, and it is long overdue in the Marvel DTV series. It’s too bad that once Strange starts learning sorcery the monks take over the spotlight and he’s reduced to a guest star in his own film. I suppose this supposed to help counteract the impression that his Tibetan friends would be lost without a Caucasian savior.

The upside is that the appearance of the monks almost always leads to a fight, first against an array of Dormammu’s grotesque beasts and finally against ol’ hothead himself. I was dreading tediously inert spell-casting contests, but thankfully the brand of sorcery practiced in Doctor Strange owes far more to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than Harry Potter. This allows for several brief but exciting martial arts melees, including a desperate stand against hundreds of monstrous hounds in Central Park. I found the action more enjoyable than anything the series has done since Ultimate Avengers‘ big Hulk free-for-all.

As the newly crowned Sorcerer Green, Strange insisted all mystic warriors take the bus.

Since it wouldn’t be a Doctor Strange story without a little horror, the film also manages to be convincingly creepy at times. The opening scene, where a terrified construction worker frantically tries to clamber out of a sewer only to be yanked back in by an unseen menace, is straight out of a Stephen King novel. Even more disconcerting is the wingmark, a mass of thousands of flying piranha-like creatures that act as one and eat their victims to the bone in seconds. So keep in mind that Doctor Strange is not the best Marvel introduction for five-year-olds.

Slightly older folk will enjoy the creative art design and maybe the best animation in the series. The CG vehicles are more smoothly integrated into the 2D environment than in the previous productions. I hope whoever designed Strange’s car lands a cushy job in Detroit, as I’d love to drive the real thing.

Admittedly some images do wear their influences on their sleeves. The monks’ huge mountain complex looks suspiciously similar to The Lord of the Rings‘ Minas Tirith, and Strange’s expedition to Dormammu’s dark realm to rescue children’s souls is reminiscent of Constantine. Dormammu’s delightfully satanic visage seems lifted from one of heavy metal band Mercyful Fate’s album covers, but his unimposing voice sadly would be more at home on a Clay Aiken disc.

“Uh, hi. I was just going to drop off this past due notice for your heating bill, but perhaps I’ll come back another time when you’re not so … home.”

Frankly the extras are a bit disappointing. “The Origin of Dr. Strange” does provide a brief but interesting overview of the character’s comic background and movie adaptation through interviews with the likes of Stan Lee and DTV executive producer Eric Rollman. There’s a reasonably extensive gallery of storyboard sketches and paintings, though I would have preferred to see alternate designs instead of images from the film.

But the remaining “extras” are—let’s be honest—shameless advertisements. The collection of CG cut scenes from Marvel’s recent X-Men Legends II and Ultimate Alliance video games is kind of neat to look at but quite unrelated to this film. “A First Look at Avengers Reborn” shows a lot of Teen Titans style concept sketches for the next Avengers DTV, though no footage. The good news is that Ultron will play the chief baddie. The bad news is that Iron Man will play nursemaid to the Avengers’ kids. Maybe Jarvis demanded time and a half.

Doctor Strange has all the key elements in place; they just need to be given a little more than 70-odd minutes to breathe. I’m sure Marvel’s budgets must be very tight, but additional dialog scenes shouldn’t be too expensive. Heck, they could do it just like the old Marvel Superheroes shorts and have Strange communicate via telepathy with no animation at all. Then again, writing a groovy theme song that rhymes with “Dormammu” wouldn’t be cheap.

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