Haven't you heard? Doctor Strange is supposed to be really good. It's got like a really high score on Rotten Tomatoes and it's got that up and coming Benedict Cumberbatch. Plus it totally looks like Inception! Win win win! Right?
So I saw it.
Meh. They should really start getting the people who make movie trailers to start making movies, because they all seem much better at structure, style and pacing. Even my wife thought it "Looks awesome!"
Instead? When we saw the actual film?
Now don't get me wrong. "Meh" does not equal "Ugh." "Meh" means it was an okay film, where they managed to avoid all the things they could've done wrong. The film is no embarrassment. And many people seem to honestly like it. But I was, as they say, whelmed.
Sure, it has great special effects. Sure, the acting is all sincere. The jokes land. The plot thickens. The ending appropriately solves all the issues it needs to solve while being both kinda clever and awesome looking, and only enough plot threads are left loose to seed future story lines in a deliberately organic sorta way. And yeah, it's more or less a fairly accurate interpretation of the comic book core concept.
Why meh? Keep reading...
Because we've seen all these pieces before. This is a superhero paint-by-numbers movie the likes of which we haven't seen since Ant-Man (and I liked Ant-Man! but it's still true). Marvel is so keen on sticking with what works, they seem to resist any originality or uniqueness of style. They succeed only in creating another generic Marvel movie, (this time with magic!). But even this could be forgivable if it just had a little life to it.
As a writer, this is a legitimate concern. All your ideas are good ideas. Your outline is sound. All the pieces are in place. You've done the research and the planning and you know exactly where you want to drop your subtle Easter eggs, and where you want to land your climactic conclusion. On paper, it's perfect. But when you actually write the darn thing, it comes off as flat, lifeless and insincere. How do you make it something the reader truly experiences, rather than something they observe casually at arm's length.
This is the same problem the Marvel movies had with the first Captain America, Thor and Incredible Hulk movies. They did not have this problem with Iron-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Solution: There are probably a handful of valid ways to solve this, depending on exactly why or how your story is lifeless. Up the stakes or consequences. Write more honestly. Be less predictable. Or my personal favorite, which I think would've helped Doctor Strange and which I also use in my own writing: be absolutely heart-pumpingly indulgent. Go for the gusto!
Half the fun of Iron-Man was watching Tony Stark have fun. He had a selfish, indulgent quality that made the whole process of inventing the Iron-Man suit completely gratuitous and exciting. His in-the-moment excitement matched our own in the audience. He was there. He was in the suit. He was killing it. And we loved every second of it because he loved it, and they didn't shy away from showing that.
The same is true of Guardians of the Galaxy. That movie was not afraid to get weird and the weirdness wasn't just set-dressing. The characters were weird, and weirdness was a theme of the film, so shying away from it would've been antithetical. James Gunn (writer/director) knew this, and knew that embracing the weirdness, downright indulging in it, was the only way to bring his story to life and not be just another Marvel movie (this time in space!). Hence the space station inside the body of a giant god-machine and a dance-off during the climax (say nothing of a talking Vin Diesel tree!)
So how do you indulge?
In the case of Doctor Strange, the character is cocky and proud and brilliant and he knows it. If you watch Sherlock, you can see Benedict Cumberbatch is quite capable of pulling that exact thing off. His portrayal of Sherlock is not only that he's brilliant and he knows it, he enjoys being exactly who he is. Shamelessly. Doctor Strange uses the exact skill to succeed in magic as he did as a surgeon. He's just freaking smart. He learns everything and then he figures out a way to use that knowledge to be better than anyone. But he didn't enjoy it. Sure he was proud and cocky but he didn't look like he was relishing his life. We got to see Tony Stark just in love with his playboy life, but we didn't see Strange totally happy in his. Neither did we see him totally lonely and depressed and without a deeper purpose in life. Either case would've been a more honest emotional context. I prefer to think he liked being "the best." But the movie could've used one more scene to really show that. To indulge it. Maybe a scene all alone in his home where he dusts off his awards, reverently, all piled up above a stack of books as he spends the night researching so he can continue to be the best. It's vain, yes, but it's who he is. It's all he cares about. Not just being the best, but proving it. Earning it.
And this would explain how he rose through the magic ranks. When the Ancient One abandons him on Mt Everest, he wouldn't have a hissy fit. He'd be embarrassed. "I'll be damned if some bald headed bimbo is gonna tell me I can't do it!" and then he masters it to prove a point.
When Wong says he "can't read those books," Strange does it anyway. When the others say he doesn't have what it takes, he puts his "photographic memory" to the test and does what he did in med school, which is just to learn faster than everyone else.
We grow to suspect as an audience that his achievements are undermined by his vanity and pride.
And when he confronts Dormammu, we can finally share in his glee as he realizes he's once again even more brilliant than this cosmic entity. His cocky brilliance is finally a virtue. It saves the day. But with a twist. This time, he had to risk a part of himself. He had to risk living in eternity (in an endless loop) to win, which means he had to risk not getting the glory. So it finally gives him a chance separate the virtue of his brilliance from the vice of his vanity.
Plus, when it succeeds, and no one will ever know what he did (beyond Wong and Mordo) he gets to be okay with it. This shows growth. But a little cockiness remains, and I think a cocky Doctor Strange who thinks he can't be beat makes a good Achilles' heel for him in the sequel.
This is basically the Tony Stark character arc: rather than reject your flaw, embrace it but for good. Tony didn't stop making weapons, he made the best weapon and used it for good. Scott Lang didn't stop stealing in Ant-Man, he simply started stealing for good. Strange shouldn't stop being cocky and relishing in his talent, he should embrace it for good. Plus a know-it-all Sorcerer Supreme is not an un-fair interpretation of the comics and it fits perfectly with his origin.
Instead the movie indulged in visual effects, when it should've indulged in the pure joy of being brilliant. We could've had a little guilty pleasure in watching him succeed as the world's best surgeon in the opening scenes. Instead they felt forced. We could've enjoyed watching him be more clever at magic than his supporting cast, instead those scenes are generic and expositional. The closest we came was the smirk on his face when he told Dormammu how he had just trapped him. But you can't be full of life only at the end of your story. You have to avoid that lifelessness the whole way through. Stark was enjoying his playboy life from the start. Star-Lord clearly felt free to cut loose and be weird and have fun even in the opening credits. Strange was just a boring egotist who became helpful by the end of the film. That's not enough to suck the audience in. You need to lay it on thicker than that!
So whatever your character is good at, whatever they like, don't hold back. Dive in deeper and then a little deeper. Push the limits until it starts to seem almost gratuitous, and then you can bet you're pretty close. Indulge in what the character would indulge in so the audience can enjoy it too. And in so doing, you can breathe some real life into your story.
Other random examples of movies that don't hold back:
Wolf of Wall Street
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Theory of Everything
Saving Private Ryan
OldBoy (Korean version)
Every time these movies get "excessive" or "gratuitous" or "take it too far", that's where they have the most life.