Genre: Superhero
Premise: After an arrogant neurosurgeon’s hands are bludgeoned in a car accident, he seeks help from a mystical woman in the mountains of Nepal, but gets far more than he bargained for.
About: Doctor Strange was part of Marvel’s “Phase 3” program, which was both a strategy and an ideology. “3” stood for the most experimental of the Marvel properties, and therefore the films they had the least amount of confidence in. Well that confidence has been restored, as the mind-bending fresh-as-a-Michigan-Cherry-in-June film secured $85 million bucks this weekend, upwards of $20 million more than most prognosticators predicted. Chalk up another win for the studio that can’t stop cranking out the hits. Marvel wins again. Dr. Strange was co-written by Jon Spaiths, who famously wrote the best unproduced screenplay of the last 10 years, Passengers – which comes out this December. I don’t think a screenwriter can have a bigger month than Spaiths is having.
Writer: Jon Spaiths (earlier drafts by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill).
Details: 115 minutes

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 12.30.53 AM

Let’s get straight to the biz-nass. Doctor Strange is a good movie. Even if Jayden Smith endorses it.

But it got me thinking about that decade old question: Why are Marvel movies so much better than DC movies? There was a heavily publicized conversation that took place last week where famed writer, Bret Easton Ellis, no stranger to controversial statements, shared that the Ben Affleck-helmed Batman project over at Warner Brothers has upwards of 30 major script problems.

This statement inspired many thoughts, so many that I didn’t know what to do with them. The first is that of all the people in the industry, Ben Affleck is near the top of the list of people who care about the script. He owes his entire career to script development, as Good Will Hunting is one of the most famously drawn-out development processes ever, with rumors that the script hit over a hundred drafts.

Except that it went on to win Affleck a screenwriting Oscar, and teach him a valuable lesson. The script is king. Get it right and everything else falls into place.

But more troubling was the reaction of the WB execs Ellis was talking to. Their reaction was “We don’t care.” Their argument was that 70% of the theaters this movie will play in won’t contain English-speaking audiences. So the script, in their minds, is the last thing that matters. To them: Ben Affleck, an Oscar winning director, is directing. Ben Affleck, A-list actor, is acting. And the franchise is, arguably, the most valuable franchise in history.

This is where things get speculative. But my guess is that these “execs” don’t understand how screenwriting works. Their observation that the film won’t be playing in front of people who speak English implies they believe the long-standing ignorant assumption that screenwriting is dialogue.

But everyone who understands screenwriting knows that the heavy lifting is done in the structure, the plotting, and the character work. Once that’s taken care of, you can hire any solid writer to fill in the dialogue. To that end, it doesn’t matter what language you speak. If the plotting is terrible. If the second act isn’t building. If the characters aren’t compelling. — YOU’RE BORED!

With that said, it’s a statement that’s troubling in what it implies. That this new globally-dominated marketplace is going to dictate that same type of approach from everyone. It doesn’t matter if the observation is wrong. If enough people believe it, it might as well be true.

But then I watched Dr. Strange and I realized… DC? And your execs? You’re wrong.

The difference between the entertainment level of Dr. Strange, a no-name super hero up until the promotional blitz for this movie began a month ago, versus Batman, the most famous superhero ever, is decidedly in Dr. Strange’s favor. And the reason for that is the screenplay. This is a compelling character who was perfect for the movie treatment who gave us an experience that was different from the same old nonsense we get week in and week out with these ancient DC superheroes.

Let’s start with the title character. Dr. Strange contains one of the ideal character arcs to explore in a screenplay. He’s a pompous arrogant asshole who thinks he knows it all. What do you do to a pompous arrogant asshole who thinks he knows it all? You take away the only thing he’s good at. In this case: his ability to perform surgery. Once you strip away a person’s identity, they must struggle. And since struggle creates conflict and conflict creates drama, the movie writes itself.

NEaT0xzDtFPOed_2_b

As cool as Batman is, his character “complexity” comes from two places, one a melodramatic cliche and the other a gimmick. The first is that he watched his parents die when he was a child. The second is that he has a secret identity. That combination is fun. He’s got to battle his demons. He’s got to hide who he really is.

But is it really a complex character in the way that Doctor Strange is a complex character? In Strange’s case, we’re actually exploring HIM. Like as a PERSON. His identity has been taken from him, and he’s now asked to adopt a new identity that he doesn’t believe in in order to get his life back. That’s a much more interesting character journey if you ask me.

And if you doubt this, go back and watch Batman vs. Superman. It’s steeped in these over-the-top melodramatic flashbacks of Batman watching his parents die. Who the fuck cares? It’s so simplistic, it’s almost embarrassing.

This is why Batman, the character, got overshadowed even in the best treatment of his movies – under Nolan. The Joker had so much more shit going on inside his head, that a basic parent-death backstory combined with an eye-roll-inducing 10,000th super hero with a secret identity plotline just couldn’t hold up.

And the worst thing about Batman is that it can’t even have fun with its secret identity plotline because it takes itself so damn seriously. I mean at least with Spider-Man, they have fun with that stuff. With Batman, it’s a chore. You can almost feel everyone involved groaning as Batman uses his fake voice to disguise that he’s really Bruce Wayne.

One thing I’ve found interesting about movies like Dr. Strange is that because they don’t have a lot of money, they have no choice but to explore character. Character exploration is much cheaper than huge set-pieces. The “learning” phase of Dr. Strange goes on for a really long time. Upwards of 50 pages. And because of this, we get to know this person and therefore CARE about him when he gets to those set-pieces.

Batman vs. Superman took the opposite approach. They tried to get in as many trailer-friendly set-pieces as possible so their film could be a smorgasbord of action. Yet it was this exact approach that contributed to the movie’s emptiness.

It was sad, really. It’s like they sensed this and figured if they could throw in a couple of flashbacks of Batman losing his parents, that would be enough to make us “feel” for the character. Instead, it launched him, and us, right down Cliche Creek without an originality paddle.

Dr. Strange is a testament to if you want to survive in this new world of oversaturated comic book movies, you’re going to need to differentiate yourself. It’s why this and Ant-Man and Deadpool became hits. They’re different. These old guard superheroes like Superman and Batman are going to get eyeballs on notoriety alone. But since they’re not the only game in town anymore, they can’t rest their laurels on their budgets and their special effects. They’ll need to find a way to make the characters interesting again. If they don’t, they risk becoming – duh, duh, duhhhhh – a bottom-feeder franchise.

And you know what? Maybe that decade-old question can be boiled down to the simplest of answers. The reason Marvel movies are so much better than DC movies is that they leave you feeling good. Just like a good comic book did when you were a kid. A DC movie, on the other hand, always leaves you feeling a little bit down. Even Suicide Squad. If DC can fix that part of the equation, maybe they can close the gap. But right now, they’re the Cleveland Indians. And Marvel is the Cubs.

[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Uninspired cliche flashbacks of a traumatic moment in a character’s history (watching your parents die) is not character development. It may provide context. But it is not character development. Character development is creating a character identity and challenging that identity throughout the course of the movie. In this sense, it might be best to call it “Character Challenging.” So in The Matrix, Neo doesn’t believe he’s the one. So he gets numerous “character challenges” throughout the film that challenge this notion – building jumping, fighting Morpheus, the fight with one of the agents in the Subway. Ultimately, he believes, which is is when he finally defeats the bad guys.

  • Scott Crawford

    Placeholder.

    • Brock Brahmes

      Couldn’t agree more.

    • klmn

      Thanks Scott. And thanks for the work you do for this contest.

      If you have something you want my notes on, hit me up.

  • Zack Snide Err

    Why must almost every critical examination of what makes marvel movies good be built around on what said critic (Carson or otherwise) dislikes about the DC movies?

    I think it’s because the difference between the two doesn’t come down to anything a film critic or writer can attribute to craft. The difference boils down to the ‘take’ on the material.

    Marvel gets that in large part the general audience doesn’t go to see these movies for stakes, drama, conflict, or pretense. While DC is trying to make comic book movies into The Lord of the Rings (and not the animated version either).

    That’s why the MCU movies are more fun. The people making the creative decisions take material less seriously. So the movies take themselves less seriously.

    Creatively there’s something to learn there as amateurs, especially if we fancy working in that cbm tent pole arena one day.

    • Scott Crawford

      Also DC takes place in a fictional world. And I must admit I get confused as to where those fictional cities are – where was Suicide Squad, was that Gotham?

      I suppose that – on some level – people connect more to the characters if they think they live in New York or Los Angeles, etc.

  • BMCHB

    The great thing about paying for a yearly pass to my local movie theater is that I can go see as many movies a month that I want for less than the price of two at the door. It makes me feel less guilty when I go see Marvel/DC movies.

    Doctor Strange is… alright. Aside from visuals it is the usual cookie cooker plot but it works mostly.

    I think the difference between Marvel and DC is that Marvel makes movies for children that will soon be adults whereas DC makes movies for adults that used to be children. Marvel just seem to respect their viewers more.

    I still wish that Joaquin Phoenix had played Doctor Strange. That would have been perfect casting.

  • Scott Crawford

    Steven Strange is one of the most complex characters so far in the MCU.

    John Truby talks about things called the Psychological Need and the Moral Need. Quite simply, the Psychological Need is the thing that a hero needs to feel better about themselves. The MORAL Need is what the hero needs to DO (start doing) in order to be a better person in the world. The Psychological Need is measured by the character’s sense of inner worth while Moral Need is measured by the hero’s effect on others.

    Psychological Need is linked to Inner Motivation, the hero’s reason for pursuing a goal. In DOCTOR STRANGE, “Steve” isn’t motivated (in his life) not so much by a desire to help humanity than by the Psychological Need to show how fantastic he is. Ego.

    When he’s in the car, talking on is phone (NEVER talk on your phone while driving, even hands-free – says so in the closing credits!), Strange is dismissing offers of potential patients on the grounds that they’re not challenging enough.

    Even when he becomes a sorcerer, his initial (understandable) motivation of wishing to heal his hands is supplanted by his desire to be the greatest of all these mystical sorcerers.

    And they KEY thing is, this is a not a bad thing. It’s fine to be motivated by wanting to be the best; it’s a good motivation for a screenwriter, to want to prove themselves.

    Problem is, during the course of the hero’s journey, he discovers his Major Flaw. The hero’s Moral Need is linked to his Major Flaw. In this case Strange’s refusal to accept that maybe he’s not the best person for the job, that maybe he needs extra help, whether it’s the highly-competent surgeon he mocked earlier in the story or the demon he strikes a bargain with.

    To put it simply, Strange’s Psychological Need is to prove he’s the best and his Moral Need is for humility.

    Truby also points that you have to SHOW the hero’s Moral change by showing the effect they’re now having on society.

    The key, though, is not to have the hero DROP his Psychological Need, nor his Inner Motivation, not even his Major Flaw. As Pilar Allesandra points out, the hero’s Major Flaw is also the Major Skill. Strange’s desire to be the best is well-suited to a man battling the greatest threats to the universe.

    A man with paranoia is more prepared for traps. A man who only works alone is self-reliant. And so on.

    By the end of the story, the hero is The Master of Two Worlds; he’s the person he always was, albeit happier now he’s achieved his inner motivation, but now he’s also a better person, morally.

    And if that sounds complex, that’s good. Characterization SHOULD be complex.

    • Zack Snide Err

      Great analysis. The sequence that made the movie for me was when the Ancient One told Strange that he could, in fact, “get his hands back”.
      He simply needed to choose whether to use his powers to serve his ego (like you pointed out) or serve the greater good. And he obviously made the right choice.

      The movie had a lot of flaws but his arc was handled superbly.

    • brenkilco

      I was thinking. If Hamlet had had x-ray vision and super hearing that whole story could have had a Marvel happy ending.

      • Scott Crawford

        John Logan, who’s written a lot of blockbusters as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, advocates reading and studying Richard III. Definitely worth studying some of Shakespeare’s more complex characters.

        Then again, Hamlet became THE LION KING…

  • BMCHB

    Also, whomever gave the thumbs up to an ‘angsty’ Superman needs to go down in history as having made the worst creative/artistic decision OF ALL TIME.

    That person really doesn’t get the point of movies or stories at all. That ‘decision’ will end up ‘losing’ DC/Warners a couple billion dollars at the box office.

    • Scott Crawford

      The last time I watched Batman vs. Superman I was struck by how annoying Superman/Clark Kent is. Remove him, or just ignore the scenes where he’s in, and the movie is much more watchable. A bit like Jake Lloyd in Phantom Menace.

      • BMCHB

        Very true. I just can’t see the inherent goodness of Superman in Cavill’s portrayal. Nor could I see the forthcoming darkness in Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of Anakin.

        Both actors were obviously encumbered by past portrayals of their character and script issues, but I am sure that viewers pick up on these issues and something, whether they are aware of it or not, jars.

  • Dave Lerner

    >But right now, they’re the Cleveland Indians. And Marvel is the Cubs

    I believe that if you want to use a Cubs metaphor, it would be more accurate to say that DC is the Chicago Tribune era Cubs (from http://scriptshadow.net/five-screenwriting-lessons-you-can-learn-from-the-cubs/):

    Love What You’re Writing About – One of the reasons the
    Cubs were so bad for so long was because they were owned by the Chicago
    Tribune, a giant (at the time) news company that couldn’t give two
    shits about the team.

    Have a Plan – When Theo Epstein inherited the Cubs, he
    redesigned the organization from the top down. The Cubs used to be a
    group of aging overpaid overvalued losers who were more interested in a
    paycheck than winning.

    Good things come to those who wait

    DC execs wanted the Suicide Squad script written in six weeks!?!

  • Maarten Bosmans

    Hey Guys,

    I live in Belgium and saw DR Strange on opening night 2 weeks ago a wednesday. This weekend i drove to holland to watch Hacksaw Ridge.

    I was bored with Dr Strange to be honest the entire second act is a training montage drawn out. He is talking to Tilda then he is training talking again to Tilda and training again. We have no idea in which type of time frame this movie takes places (how much time passes between entering the monastery and leaving). Also the bad guy had so much time,…. And then hits the monastery when Dr Strange is almost ready.
    The last note was the opening scene, we enter a library dark music plays the bad guys enter chops a guys head off and steals some item. You are basically telling the audience what is going to happen where is the surprise???

    Then is saw this weekend Hacksaw Ridge
    It are 2 movies into 1 the first is a drama story about a boy falling in love with someone and the second story is the story of what happened at Hacksaw Ridge.
    There was good humour in here lots of fun moments then in the end it was all serious moments. Like uncle Mel said in an interview at least here you care about the Deaths in the movie!! When the Ancient one died i was not surprised and i did not care. I also got a feeling with Hacksaw that they do not make these type of movies anymore it kinda reminded me of a cross between Full metal jacket and Medal of honour. You are really watching somebody doing something truly heroic.

    Carson i would love if you could do a comparison between these 2 flicks. I think Hacksaw should have gotten more viewers.

    • carsonreeves1

      I reviewed Hacksaw back in the day. It’s funny, I saw it the opposite way (at least in script form). I felt Hacksaw was repetitive throughout its second act, and was really one giant waiting period until it got to that great third act.

      But I can understand the critique of people being bored by the Dr. Strange training. As much as I liked that they were exploring the character, this section could’ve shed a few pounds.

      • DB Stevens

        Another option instead of shedding pounds (it’s runtime was surprisingly light, it was under 2 hours) would be to tweak the training to be more dangerous or visceral.

        Neo’s training in the first Matrix felt more tense and scary, especially with the “training” trip to the Oracle happening in the Matrix itself. We had Strange trapped on a mountaintop that could kill him, but it didn’t *feel* threatening. But I’m not sure I can put my finger on why that scene lacked the intensity level despite being a live-or-die test.

  • BMCHB

    That awkward moment you are about to call up Carson on his comment:

    ”One thing I’ve found interesting about movies like Dr. Strange is that because they don’t have a lot of money…”

    and then some quick research shows you that he is correct; 165 MILLION DOLLARS is NOT a lot of money. Barely in the Top 100 budgets of all time… WTF, Hollywood?

    • Scott Crawford

      In this modern era, without DVD sales and with Netflix and blah, blah, blah, $165 million IS a lot of money. You can only spend that sort of money now if you’re certain the film will make a shedload of cash around the world – it’s not a coincidence the film ends in Hong Kong.

      Inferno cost $75 million, Jack Reacher 2 only $60 million. Even if neither is a box office sensation they’ll make their money back. On the other hand, the only reason there might not be a Ghostbusters 2 is because Ghostbusters 1 cost $146 million (the original, back in 1984, cost $30 million, which was hight for the time).

      If you can keep the cost of a potential blockbuster under $100 million then it has a reasonable chance of making that back.

  • Pat

    I saw Dr. Strange over the weekend and I thought it was an alright movie, but I felt the script had issues which stopped it from being great movie. The movie is worth seeing because it is imaginative and handles the aspect of magic well, but the beginning of the script is rushed and it affects the rest of the movie.

    For example, there are too many coincidences. SPOILERS. The car crash is a random event, the fact only his hands are ruined is a random event, it’s convienent that his physiotherapist knows of the one other guy who recovered from a similar “unrecoverable” injury and then this recovered person happens to be living nearby? I kept waiting to learn this was all a ploy by the Ancient One, but that never happened.

    If he had been doing something with his hands which led to their injury or if the speech he was going to was actually important to the plot I might have felt different about it, but the scene felt like it was just inserted into the movie because it had to be.

    I know this is nit picky, but what it did was it started to make me notice the issues with the script and therefore each subsequent misstep took me out of the movie.

    For example:
    Why didn’t Strange go back to work with broken hands? He is set up to be a skilled surgeon and highly intelligent, he could still consult as he did when the man had a bullet in his brain.
    How much time passes in this movie because Strange mentions he became a surgeon after years of study, so I assume it took years to study magic, but that can’t happen because the movie has to line up with the rest of the MCU.
    Why does no one try to find or stop the villains plan? They stole the spell and then no one cares to stop them from performing it.
    How come it takes the villains so long to connect to the Dark Dimension? Strange has time to master magic in the time it takes for them to perform one ritual.
    Why does a connection to the Dark Dimension make the villain better able to control the Mirror Dimension? This line of dialog has no grounding in the facts of the movie.

    Again, nit picky, but for me Dr. Strange’ weakest aspect was it’s script. Not saying Batman v Superman had a better script (it didn’t) but I’m not about to praise Strange’s script anytime soon.

  • David Sarnecki

    While I quite like this movie, and I agree in general that Batman isn’t terribly interesting, I think you’re shortchanging him in TDK specifically. That movie makes him interesting through the main villain specifically. The Joker makes Batman doubt, and then double down and reaffirm on some of his key ideals.

    To me it’s more impressive stuff than “MARTHA!” That’s for sure.

  • Lucid Walk

    First Guardians, then Ant-Man, now this. I like how MCU has been making all these risky movies, and I love how they’ve all done well upon release.

    Which is why I’m upset about 2017. Guardians 2? Thor 3? Spider-Man? Where’s the risk in any of these? I’m sure they’ll be great, but still…

    • Scott Crawford

      They want three of each for big ones – 3 Iron Man movies (done), 3 Cap Americas (done), 3 Thors (12 – done next year), and a couple of sequels like Gardians 2 and Ant Man and the Wasp. But after Infinity War part 2, Downey’s gone, as is Johannson, Evans, Ruffalo, Renner and all the rest.

      So only about 11 years after MCU began, they’ll have to start over either with new characters or new (recast) actors.

      Compare 11 years with Bourne (14 years) and Wolverine (17 years with the release of Logan). Marvel are not taking risks necessarily but they are HEADING for a very risky situation. I mean, who the heck are Inhumans? And will anyone care by then?

      • Lucid Walk

        Good point. Even if the MCU were to end after Infinity War part 2, it’d probably be picked up again in 20 years time.

        I guess there’s no such thing as a dead franchise in Hollywood. I mean, I thought for sure Star Wars and Harry Potter were finished, but nope.

  • Dimitri

    First off, it’s not like a foreign audience doesn’t know a bad script when they see it. It’s one of the weirdest arguments I’ve ever heard for accepting a bad screenplay.

    Another thing what I noticed about Dr Strange is that they made their action sequences different. I love that they had a fight on the side of a skyscraper, In a hospital as ghosts, flying through walls and one where the time was reversing while they kept on fighting. Also the end “battle” was pretty nifty.

  • carsonreeves1

    The strange thing about Marvel, however, is that they get all these second-rate filmmakers to direct their movies and they usually turn out well. I’m not sure how they do it.

    • Mike.H

      …yet big name directors at time churn out stink bombs. Ego?

  • fragglewriter

    Great comparison of DC vs Marvel. I’m not really a fan of comic book adaptation films, except for maybe two of them, but the few I do like, I like the fun aspect of it.

    • Mike.H

      Is it pronounced Mar ful or Mar VELL?

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpjCroELCew Carmelo Framboise

    “As cool as Batman is, his character “complexity” comes from two places […] first is that he watched his parents die when he was a child. The second is that he has a secret identity. […] But is it really a complex character in the way that Doctor Strange is a complex character? […] His identity has been taken from him, and he’s now asked to adopt a new identity that he doesn’t believe in in order to get his life back. That’s a much more interesting character journey if you ask me.”

    Haven’t seen Dr. Strange, but I disagree with the notion.

    I DO find that a rich orphan who has a secret identity as a super-hero has more potential (or as much potential as) than a neugosurgeon loosing his hands and finding some mystical powers on the way.

    Ok, I guess they wrote a compelling character for Dr. Strange and no I don’t consider Batman movies really good, but there is a lot of room for character in Batman too. Bergman for example, would have written a hell of a Batman. :)

  • Mike.H

    I wonder if Keanu Reeves or someone along the A-list had first right of refusal or his ” pts ” asked was too high? Anyone? Thanks.

  • carsonreeves1

    Great post!

  • ScriptChick

    Had a great time watching Dr. Strange! Was bugged though by the teaser at the very end — knew where it was going, didn’t want to leave the theater that way. That and the kaleidoscope effect of the magic had me anxious to find some end. But I guess a kaleidoscope is the very antithesis of a beginning-middle-end three act structure so now end in sight…

  • Poe_Serling

    Probably won’t catch Dr. Strange until it hits the Redbox circuit, but I did
    watch Cumberbatch on SNL…. does that count for anything? ;-)

    I haven’t seen a lot of his film work, but I can tell that he’s a talented actor.
    He seemed to have a really good time on the show poking fun at himself.

    • klmn

      I expect I’ll see it. I’ve got a bunch of comics featuring the good Doctor from when I was a kid.