Last Monday, I took a break. I don’t normally take much time off, but I wanted to tune out of election coverage on what I feared, implausibly but correctly, might be the last entirely happy day I’d have for the next four years. My book project was in good shape, I’d finished a decent draft of a short story, and I had nothing else pressing to hold my attention. So I lit out. I treated myself to a Lyft ride into Chicago, where I dropped into two of my favorite used bookstores—Bookman’s Corner and Booklegger’s—and spent about twenty bucks. Then I took a train to the River East Theater on Illinois Street, where I met up with my wife to catch Doctor Strange, which was the first movie we’d seen together on the big screen since The Force Awakens. Afterward, we headed home just in time to put our daughter, who had spent the day with her grandparents, to bed. And if I lay out the context in such detail, it’s because I have a feeling that this is how most people in this country go to the movies. After a young adulthood in which I turned up at my local cineplex or art house theater at least once a week to see whatever blockbuster or critical darling was currently in the reviews, along with countless revivals, I’ve settled down into a routine in which I’m more likely to see two or three movies each year with my daughter and a couple of others for myself. This places me squarely in the mainstream of most moviegoers: according to a recent survey, the average American sees five movies a year, and I seem likely to hit that number exactly.
Which is both remarkable and kind of unsurprising. Hollywood releases about six hundred movies every year, a significant percentage of which are trying to appeal to as many demographic quadrants as possible. Yet even The Force Awakens, which sold over a hundred million tickets domestically, was seen by something less than a third of all Americans, even before you take multiple viewings into account. To convince the average adult to go to the movies five times in a single calendar year, you need a wide range of product, only a fraction of which is likely to entice any given individual to buy a ticket. Inevitably, however, the people who write professionally about the movies from both the artistic and business angles are inclined to try to make sense of the slate as a whole. Film critics may review two or three movies every week and go to even more—and they have to see everything, not just what appeals to their own tastes. As I learned during my own stint as a working critic, it’s a situation that has a way of altering your expectations: you realize how many movies are simply mediocre and forgettable, and you start to relish anything out of the ordinary, however misguided it might be. Needless to say, this isn’t how your typical moviegoer sees it. Someone who watches a hundred and fifty movies every year for free might as well belong to a different species as someone who pays to see fewer than five, but they have no choice but to try to understand each other, at least if we’re going to take criticism seriously from either side.
So what does this have to do with Doctor Strange? Quite a lot, I think. I had originally hoped to write about it here last week, before the election made it hard to think about anything else, and there was a time when I wasn’t even sure whether I’d devote a post to it at all. Yet I’ve become intrigued precisely by the way it has faded in my imagination. In the moment, I liked it a lot. It stars five actors whom I’m happy to see in anything, and it actually gives two or three of them something interesting to do. When I broke it down in my head, its scenes fell into three categories. About of a third were watchable in the usual Marvel way, which takes pride in being pretty good, but not great; another third achieved something like high camp; and the last third were genuinely visionary, with some of the most striking visual effects I’ve ever seen. There are scenes in Doctor Strange that get as close as a movie possibly can to the look and feel of a dream, with elaborate geometric patterns and cityscapes that break down and reform themselves before our eyes. It left me wondering how they did it. But it didn’t stick in my head in the way that Inception, its obvious inspiration, still does. In part, it’s because it uses digital rather than practical effects: an homage to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s famous hallway fight scene only reminds us of how much more effective—and respectful of gravity—it was to stage it right in the camera. And even the most amazing sequences are chases or showdowns that amount to interchangeable components. The story halts for them, and they could be inserted at any point into any version of the script.
As a result, it left me with a highlight reel of memories that is basically identical to the trailer. But a movie that was wholly as weird and as distinctive as the best scenes in Doctor Strange would never have made it into theaters. It would be fundamentally out of keeping with the basic premise of the Marvel Universe, which is that no one movie can stick out from the rest, and nothing can occur that is so meaningful that it interferes with the smooth production of films being shot simultaneously by other directors. The story, ideally, should be about as little as possible, while still creating the illusion that the stakes are infinite—which leads inexorably to diminishing returns. (When you read the early space opera stories of writers like John W. Campbell, you realize that once the heroes can casually span entire galaxies, it means that nothing matters whatsoever. And the same thing happens in the Marvel films.) Doctor Strange works because it keeps its weirdness hermetically sealed off from the rest: as long as we’re watching those scenes, we’re transported into a freakier, more exhilarating film, only to be returned to the safe beats of the formula as quickly and antiseptically as possible. There’s nothing wrong with the screenplay, except to the extent that there’s something wrong with every script written according to the usual specifications. The result has flashes of something extraordinary, but it’s scaled back for the audience members who see only five movies a year. It’s big and distinctive enough to assure you that you’ve gotten your money’s worth, but not so unusual that it makes you question what you bought with it. It’s Benedict Cumberbatch with an American accent. And it’s exactly as good as that sounds.