If you’re planning on seeing Dr. Strange, beware: Your brain is in for a workout. Marvel Studios’ latest and most mind-bending offering, a chunk of which has been specially formatted for IMAX and 3D, is visually breathtaking. Its creators milk the basic framework of the original comic — a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon loses the use of his hands and his career after a car accident, travels east to find a cure at a secret compound in Kathmandu and is instead recruited to learn secret arts of sorcery from a leader called the Ancient One in order to protect the realm from interdimensional threats — with every drop of visual psychedelia they can muster.
In his live-action debut, an initially skeptical Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Reigning King of the Brilliant Yet Arrogant) is introduced to the mystic arts by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and soon finds himself battling Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a disgruntled former pupil of the Ancient One who invites the dark entity Dormammu to take possession of Earth in exchange for eternal life. Kaecilius and his followers are convinced that taking the planet into a dimension without time — literally called the Dark Dimension — is in the best interest of its inhabitants. They kill a multitude of regular and magic-wielding human beings to drive this point home. Get all that?
If there were ever going to be a Marvel movie with the potential for profundity, the trippy Dr. Strange would have been it: A genius egomaniac is ruined by his narcissism; then, in order to heal, he is forced to learn how to put others before himself. Interdimensional portals, the casual bending of the space-time continuum, and a cape somehow more adorable than Disney’s Magic Carpet. An infinite number of dimensions and quantum possibilities to explore! But for all its CGI spectacles and promising resources — not to mention heavy hitters like Cumberbatch, Mikkelsen, Swinton, Chiewetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams — a story that should be about humility, empathy and literally anything else in the universe ultimately becomes a story about how wanting to live forever is dumb. It’s not the first time this toxic trope has steamrolled a story, but its jarring presence in such an otherwise dazzling project makes it clear that, for the good of the realm, it must be the last. Because, believe it or not, no one wants to live forever anymore. Even children have learned this lesson, thanks to centuries of pop culture: Achieving immortality is basically a one-way ticket to Hell.
On its face, the allure of the villain-seeking-eternal-life trope seems completely reasonable. Living forever is an age-old human obsession: from the mythical Fountain of Youth to cyborg prostheses and uploading yourself to the cloud, the prospect of finally cheating death has fueled human innovation since its beginnings. Dig down to the root of why most modern medicine and technological advances exist, and a fear of death is probably in there. Pop culture has naturally reflected this struggle ad nauseam, from the eternal life of the Greek gods to the immortal Highlanders to the existential misery of Anne Rice’s vampires to the death-defying atrocities of Voldemort.
But as with most obsessions, we’ve finally found ways to move past it. Once upon a time, it really was a worthy, satisfying journey to watch a misguided character — and by extension, our shallowest selves — learn the hard way that living forever is the ultimate punishment. After generations of repetition, though, it’s become so pervasive a theme that it seems almost comical that any contemporary storyteller would use it earnestly, with no self-aware acknowledgement that this is one of the oldest, most boring villain tricks in the book. And yet Dr. Strange producer Kevin Feige and writer/director Scott Derrickson still paid Mads “Le Chiffre” Mikkelsen — one of the most enjoyably terrifying character actors working, given the right script — to grandstand about an evil plan that a kindergartner could pop like a balloon with a single retort.
Face it: We’ve all seen Interview With the Vampire. And Aladdin. (And, unfortunately, Twilight.) In a post-vampire age of wryly self-aware storytelling, villains and protagonists (both viciously and earnestly) single-mindedly seeking eternal life are crusty remnants that need to be shelved immediately for the good of us all. We all know that death is the only thing that gives human life meaning. So now, today — with this tragically poisoned superhero movie — it must, ironically, retire. R.I.P.