Another origin story. Another weak villain. Another redemptive hero. Another shallow love interest. Another Stan Lee cameo. Another post-credits scene. More CGI action. In spite of the continuing weaknesses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, “Doctor Strange” still manages to be a fun and enjoyable ride.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a cocky surgeon who crashes his car and irreparably damages bones in his hands. Searching for the ability to cure his ailment, he travels to a remote village across the world and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who teaches him about the mystic arts and prepares him for a confrontation with a fallen student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring an evil demon to Earth.
Cumberbatch is strong as Doctor Strange, blending a good mix of pompousness with vulnerability. Tilda Swinton is also a very good Ancient One. Rachel McAdams has a needless role as a trophy girlfriend for the doctor, but she isn’t as grating as Natalie Portman or Gwenyth Paltrow in similar roles. And Mads Mikkelsen is pretty pedestrian as another bad guy who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.
The true star of the film are its special effects, with its bending buildings and parallel dimensions and magic and demons. It makes the film a visual feast and helps smooth over the fact that the story itself is pretty bland.
But at least the environment is different. The MCU now has wizards and magic and some pretty crazy science behind its latest hero. While Captain America’s films are espionage dramas and “Iron Man” is modern action and “Guardians” is 1980s sci-fi, “Doctor Strange” is psychadelic new age fantasy. So while its story is familiar, at least Marvel puts that story into different genres.
Peter Jackson’s sequel trilogy to his now-classic The Lord of the Rings had so many problems: it was too long, unfocused, relied too heavily on CGI, had random subplots that did not add to the story. It is quite hard to fathom just how wrong things went. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, which you could lay at the feet of George Lucas being out of the filmmaking business for so long, Peter Jackson is still a filmmaker at the top of his game. He has a deep love of Tolkien and accomplished a monumental feat with the previous trilogy that few thought possible just a few years ago. So, what exactly did go wrong?
We’ll never know for sure. Hubris, studio involvement and too much attachment to the original may have contributed. But could it have been saved?
Let’s start off by acknowledging that The Hobbit trilogy are not bad films. They are simply misguided. The filmmakers were so enamored with what they had achieved with The Lord of the Rings that they did not want to stray too far away from that formula. The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is about a band of individuals with one hope to save the world. The Hobbit is about a troop trying to slay a dragon and reclaim their home. It is far more fantasy than the real-world parallel that The Lord of the Rings has with modern day wars and conflicts. It is the adolescent to the adult novel. So tying it in to the first trilogy is inherently problematic because you suddenly have scenes with trolls trying to make dwarves into chili and characters riding down lakes in barrels in a world where people are brutally decapitated and mass genocide is taking place. It just doesn’t mix.
This is one instance where a new director with a new vision may have really improved the dynamics. For awhile, Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct the films. His unique approach to storytelling may have really added a contrasting design that still fit in with the universe. Instead, Jackson stuck to the tone that was successful for him in the past, but inappropriate for the current story.
Then comes the problem of Bilbo Baggins. In the novel, he is often just carting around with the dwarfs, seldomly driving the plot. That is a major problem in a motion picture. The protagonist needs to initiate the action. He needs to be actively involved with the outcome of the film. He is the vessel we feel emotions through (so something better happen to him), and he is our view into the world. Martin Freeman is an excellent Bilbo, but he is very underutilized. The best moments of the trilogy are when he has his confrontation with Gollum or saves the dwarfs with the barrels or meets Smaug. We relate to the story through him through these circumstances. We feel his apprehension, his relief and his desire. When the film pivots away from that interaction with him, we are left emotionally distant. More time is focused on Thorin and Gandalf, but their journeys are less defined and less empathetic. Bilbo is our vessel and for far too much of the story, he is unavailable to us.
Thorin and Gandalf’s narratives should have been told through Bilbo. Thorin can be unsure of Bilbo in the beginning, come to regard him as a friend, break away from him as Bilbo realizes his dissent into madness only to have Bilbo save him from his sickness and regain his trust. With Gandalf, there should have been some tension. He recruits him to join the adventure, Bilbo resents him for it when things get dangerous, Gandalf convinces him of the necessity of living one’s life and not lounging around at home all day, they get separated, get back together and on. Some of this happens in the film, but it is separated by hours of subplots and universe-building so its effects are nullified.
In short, Bilbo needs to be in just about every scene. We should see all the events through his eyes. He should build up relationships with each of the dwarves (some he trusts, some he doesn’t) and all of the characters. And through it all, he learns about the need to fight for one’s home and help his friends. The films greatly struggles with why Bilbo should even care about the dwarf’s plight since he has no personal stake in the outcome. Only through a strong emotional arc about living adventure and helping your friends can we understand why Bilbo acts the way he does. In the trilogy, we are given just about nothing.
Bilbo’s journey is muted primarily because of a strange insistence on the part of the filmmakers to overcrowd the film with secondary characters. It almost seems as if they were afraid to focus on a singular protagonist and needed to built up a supporting entourage of storylines similar to The Lord of the Rings, but those storylines diverged on one single goal: helping Frodo destroy the ring to save the world. Now there are storylines about Legolas and his relationship with his father, a romance between a she-elf and a dwarf, Gandalf discovering Sauron is still alive and Azog trying to murder Thorin. None of these exactly go together, and they clutter up the films. The overarching goal, just like the first trilogy, should be simple: Find the gold and defeat the dragon to reclaim their home. Anything outside of that endgame should be left out of the film.
This necessitates another drastic change to the story: abandon the idea of a trilogy. The subplots add extra weight to the films which can easily be cut down to two or even just one movie. Multiple films could have been used if there had been natural ending notes, but there are not. In The Lord of the Rings, the first film ends with the fellowship breaking. The second ends with a climactic battle and the gaining of the appropriate courage to finish the journey. There are no such breaks in the much shorter Hobbit source material. A single film would really focus on Bilbo and his plight, his relationship with Thorin and Gandalf and the overall lesson about friendship and adventure. This is what fans deserved.
The rest of the issues hurting the value of The Hobbit trilogy are trite in comparison. Fans can complain about the overuse of CGI or the portrayal of characters, but those points are moot if the final product had been great. The Hobbit is simply too long, too convoluted and too distracted with itself to be a worthy followup to The Lord of the Rings. A different approach was needed. Fans are just left wanting.