The latest wave of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies is upon us, and while Civil War is the film I’m most anticipating, Doctor Strange was a close second. Though I’ve never been a huge fan of the character, the shots released from the set just looked so freakin’ amazing that I was prepared for a new kind of superhero movie. Then the recent trailer debuted…and I hated. Absolutely hated it.
Like most people on the Internet, I expressed my distaste for something on social media, and one of the most consistent responses I got was, “Oh here we go. Another person judging a movie before it’s even out. Just wait for the film.” These days, it’s honestly like people have forgotten that trailers are their own separate entity to be judged.
A trailer is not its film in microcosm. It’s a highly specialized art form that should be given its own Academy Award. Ideally, a trailer should do one of or both of two things. One, it should make you want to see the movie, and two, it should at least somewhat accurately tell you vaguely what the movie is about. Trailers convey this in a very short amount of time, and with varying degrees of success.
They also do a third thing, especially in heavily anticipated films. They can leave an audience with misgivings about casting and setting and reported tone either reassured or troubled. In Doctor Strange’s case, it’s definitely troubled.
Lots of people were worried about Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One, whitewashing a character that is generally portrayed as Asian in the comics. I was open-minded because I firmly believe Swinton is one of the fae and there were a lot of ways that this could be handled. Unfortunately, the trailer shows her basically doing a Chow Yun Fat impression in a clearly Asian monastery. Does that mean the film itself doesn’t do a better job in context? No, but it does imply heavily that it doesn’t.
It also does a very poor job of alleviating a common complaint among superhero filmgoers, and that is that this is going to be another movie that is mostly origin story. You could argue that as a lesser-known character, Stephen Strange needs more origin than your average hero, but to that I point at Star-Lord and the whole freakin’ cast of Guardians of the Galaxy. You get more emotional arc in a few frames of the scarred and augmented naked back of Rocket Raccoon than in any version of Spider-Man and Uncle Ben.
The Doctor Strange trailer looks like nothing but origin story. It’s essentially saying that this is a film about a man who goes to wizard school, and to put it bluntly, that was more interesting when it involved Hogwarts even if those movies lacked astral kung fu. The world simply does not need another white dude seeking ancient secrets to become the chosen one, but that’s what it looks like we get.
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Is Doctor Strange entirely about the tutelage of Stephen Strange with no actual Sorcerer Supreme-ing? Almost certainly not. We know they’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Baron Mordo, and images of Mads Mikkelsen indicate he’s probably not going to be a good guy either, but that’s all in our heads. There is exactly one shot in the trailer of anyone beyond Benedict Cumberbatch or Swinton, and it’s just someone sinisterly walking away. Is there going to be a fight? You wouldn’t know it from the trailer, and superhero flicks in which no one fights are rarely interesting. After all, what sells Civil War better than that tag team between Winter Soldier and Captain America against Iron Man in the trailer?
By the way, that walkaway shot? That’s also the last shot we get of Strange after the title splash. Everything is walking away, looking pensive or seeking that Matrix moment of self-enlightenment. In fact, I think that’s the thing I hate the most about the Doctor Strange trailer. It makes the movie look like The Matrix (but with magic instead of robots), but has none of the things that made people actually want to see The Matrix, like Hugo Weaving punching through a wall or Keanu Reeves emptying clips into agents.
I don’t know if Doctor Strange will embody what the trailer made me anticipate of it, but it is worth judging, positively or negatively, how well a trailer does its job apart from the actual movie. They’re two different things, and it’s okay to hate one without automatically being assumed to hate the other. I still think the trailers for Amelie were garbage that failed to capture the magic of a film that went on to be one of my favorites, and I hope that Doctor Strange ends up being the same way.