Warning: Spoilers! Lots of them!
Confession: I hated Doctor Strange.
My chief reasons center on the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. The wizards of the New York sanctum, headed by Wong, are preparing for battle with the villain. These wizards are a diverse lot, plenty of POC and women, and I smiled to think of them all kicking butt at the climax. But the scene cuts away, and when we rejoin Wong, and Strange asks where his team is, he answers with a shrug, and without the slightest hint of grief, that he’s the only one left. All those people have just disappeared, without a tear shed on their behalf. This is bad enough. What makes it worse is that the gender-flipped (cool), whitewashed (not cool) Ancient One has already fallen victim to Mentor Occupational Hazard, and once the villain’s two henchwomen are duly dispatched, female wizards have effectively been wiped from the face of the earth.
The only woman of significance left alive at the end is another underwritten Little Miss Normal, who in this film exists primarily to get treated like crap by the hero. With only a tweak or two, Dr. Christine Palmer might have been awesome. After all, her primary action is to perform a very difficult operation successfully and thus save the hero’s life, all while supernatural eruptions are happening all around her. But instead of highlighting her courage at this moment, the movie chooses to put tight focus on her tremulous confusion, and to play it for laughs, so that when she should have been seen as most bad-ass, she comes across instead as ineffectual, a crushingly ordinary woman who couldn’t have a place in the extraordinary life the hero must now lead. Most of the movie’s champions don’t hesitate to name her as the weak link.
All in all, I’d call Doctor Strange the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most dismal failure where gender representation is concerned, even worse than Thor: The Dark World (in which Jane, despite being helpless for most of the film, at least gets her chance to be heroic in the final act). Yet I accuse the MCU here not of malice, but of misjudgment. Those in charge doubtless felt that by making the Ancient One a woman, they would satisfy the audience’s desire for an awesome female character. Yet frankly I’d rather Wong have been gender-flipped (though not whitewashed) instead. Then at least there would have been one female wizard left standing at the end.
What does this have to do with the MCU’s newest blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War? Simply that it didn’t make the best impression on me, despite the praise it received from friends whose opinion I trust. Doctor Strange and Wong are among the first characters to appear (after a prologue that slaps a grim coda onto Thor: Ragnarok‘s hopeful finish), and residual ill feeling from Strange’s solo film spilled over onto this one. To make matters worse, the first female superhero we see, Gamora, doesn’t show up for over thirty minutes into the movie. Up to that point, except for the brief appearances of a lady super villain and Iron Man’s anxious significant other Pepper, it’s all dudes, all the time.
Thankfully, things get better.
Gamora shows up, and afterwards, Scarlet Witch gets a cool action sequence. Then, at last, Black Widow appears on the scene. No longer distracted by excessive testosterone or residual Doctor Strange-hate, I could settle in and enjoy the new movie. And I did enjoy it, overall. There is much to like, as our multitude of heroes unite to defeat Thanos, a villain who believes he’s doing good by culling by half the population of every planet where he sets foot. The fight against Thanos, the King of Collateral Damage, is everyone’s fight, and all our favorite MCU heroes — even Mantis, who disappointed me bitterly in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 — get at least one chance to shine. The latter point is, for me, the film’s chief virtue.
A few more things I loved:
- The action rarely lets up. I was never bored.
- Captain America: Civil War badly underutilized Scarlet Witch, but here she gets a bigger share of the action and a chance to show how deadly she can be.
- Everything Wakanda is full of win. I have high hopes that General Okoye of the Dora Milaje will carve a more substantial place for herself in the MCU as a whole. As for Black Panther himself… well, his ending isn’t happy, but unless Black Panther 2 turns out to be a prequel, we know he’ll somehow be all right.
- Speaking of the deaths en masse at the end: even though our common sense tells us most of them are only temporary, they still carry emotional weight. The MCU would be insane to kill Spider-Man, the comics’ most popular character, for good when they only recently won the rights to use him. Yet still, Peter Parker’s terror at feeling himself on the verge of turning to dust — “I don’t feel so good” — is absolutely heartbreaking.
- Captain Marvel is coming! Good signaling, movie!
But I did have problems, which, like my issues with Doctor Strange, spring more from misjudgment than from malice. Avengers 4 will have some things to prove.
First, while nearly all the characters get their chance in the spotlight, the white male ones do seem to dominate. The movie leads with them, as Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man get the first big action sequence. Also, in bringing all the MCU’s important figures together in one film, we get to see them interact with those outside their own sub-groups of friends and allies, yet while we get lengthy sequences of Iron Man and Doctor Strange bantering (a “goatee-off,” as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it) and Thor traveling through space with Rocket Raccoon, the female characters interact only briefly with those outside their group. We do get an awesome scene of female solidarity in which Okoye, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch team up to take down a villainess, but they exchange very little dialogue. Gamora, arguably the movie’s most important female character, exchanges only a few short words with Thor, and afterwards never interacts with any of the heroes outside her accustomed sphere. My hopes for face time between her and Black Widow, or Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch, went unfulfilled. On the whole, this lack serves as a reminder that the MCU’s women haven’t really had a chance to carry the action independently of their teams.
Second, it’s obvious the bulk of this movie was made before anyone had much of a clue that Black Panther would become the phenomenon it eventually did. T’Challa had already intrigued me in another big-team film, Captain America: Civil War, so even if his solo film hadn’t happened yet, I would still be disappointed with how little screen time he gets.
Third, I know Captain America and Black Widow are in this movie, but beyond Widow’s helping Okoye and Scarlet Witch dispatch the evil Proxima Midnight, I couldn’t tell you what they do. Blink and you’ll miss them.
Finally, while again I know most of the people turned into dust will come back, here are a few stats I find bothersome:
- The Guardians of the Galaxy now consist of Rocket Raccoon.
- Both major heroes of color, Black Panther and Falcon, are gone.
- Black Widow is now once again the Avengers’ Smurfette.
True, Okoye remains, and with very little training she could easily take up a superhero’s mantle. Since we didn’t actually see Black Panther’s sister Shuri turn to dust, I insist she’s still alive and could become Black Panther, at least until her brother’s resurrection. (Or maybe they could both be Black Panther?) If I see these things in Avengers 4, that will salve the ache. But in the next film, Cap and Black Widow had better get some meaningful screen time, and we’d better see what was so conspicuously absent from Doctor Strange — mourning for the fallen.
And a Starbucks sign being raised in Wakanda.