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'Doctor Strange' could have learned some lessons from 'Dune'
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange in Marvel's new movie. - photo by Jim Bennett
The 1986 cinematic adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune is largely considered one of the worst movies of all time, although I think that reputation is undeserved. If youve read the book upon which it is based, then you know that theres no possible way to condense that amount of material into a two-hour viewing experience.

Reading Dune is challenging enough, as it requires you to repeatedly consult the lengthy glossary in the back of the book to make sense of all the science-fiction jargon that is heaped on you beginning on the first page. You keep asking yourself things like, Whats a gom jabbar? Or a Bene Gesserit? What on earth is a Kwisatz Haderach? And is that anything like a Frumious Bandersnatch?

Eventually, you wade through all of that and discover a rich and satisfying story, but a two-hour movie doesnt have the same luxury of time in which to allow the viewer to become accustomed to the weirdness. For my part, I first watched the movie after having just reread the book, and I quite enjoyed it, but thats not to say its a good movie. It isnt. But its not really a movie, per se. Its more like an illustrated storybook, with moving pictures accompanying the written text.

Characters stand still as chunks of the novel are voiced over to explain their thoughts. The entire movie is nothing but exposition, and I cant imagine anyone who hasnt read the book being anything but baffled by it.

I thought about Dune as I watched Doctor Strange, the latest installment in the long line of Marvel comic book movies. It, too, is a literary adaptation of sorts, although the source material is a 50-year history of serialized comics far too voluminous to represent adequately in even a dozen movies. At the same time, the Doctor Strange story lends itself to episodic installments, so a movie only has to provide the first chapter, and the movie version does so more than adequately.

I dont make the comparison between Dune and Doctor Strange to suggest that they are equally bad films. Doctor Strange is a lot of fun, although its not as good as some of the other entries in the Marvel canon. Its biggest problem is that, like Dune, it tries to cover way too much ground in too short a time. Its more successful in doing so than Dune was, but it was still a problem.

Lets step back and look at everything we had to learn in order to appropriately digest this story. We meet Stephen Strange when hes a brilliant-albeit-arrogant neurosurgeon. Within about five minutes, he suffers a devastating injury that robs him of the use of his hands, and about five minutes later, hes on the front porch of an ancient mystic in Kathmandu who is teaching him how to be a sorcerer. Weve barely had enough time to be introduced to this guy, and suddenly were being yanked along with him all over time and space into trippy worlds where each finger has its own hand. Those 10 minutes would have made for a satisfying full-length feature all on their own, but here, theyre just exposition laid down to make way for the weird mystical threat to the whole universe that also has to be introduced.

Its too much, too soon.

Maybe its just that Marvel has spoiled me with its long-form superhero storytelling in its Netflix shows. Doctor Strange was a solid film, but it would have been better suited to a miniseries instead of a movie, whether or not he has his own gom jabbar.
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