Stranger things than a Bad Ass Cape
It’s going to be a weird day when we get a BAD Marvel film. Not one that’s debatable in quality like Iron Man 3 or one that’s mediocre like Thor: The Dark World, I’m talking bad on the level of the pre-Iron Man era like Ghost Rider or Elektra. It probably won’t be Doctor Strange which, despite a few critiques in demonstrating the “Marvel formula,” still manages to present a unique vision married to a crowd pleaser of a film.
So the tale of Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes a little like Thor’s origin in which he is a cocky, arrogant surgeon who learns the hard way of why you shouldn’t text and drive: you wind up near death and have you your hand nerves destroyed preveting you from continuing your craft. Being a world famous surgeon and unwilling to fade into obscurity, he blows his entire fortune on experimental procedures to repair his hands and become the world class surgeon once more. When Western medicine fails him, he spends the last of his fortune to visit Nepal and find the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to repair him, but he is instead introduced to infinite realities, space time manipulation, and good ol’ fashioned magic. Which is a good thing, since a rogue apprentice of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is busy learning some dark sorcery to ruin the world.
Let me get my most glaring critique out because there’s a lot more interesting discussions to be had. Yes, the Marvel Formula is beginning to show its age. We’ve only been seeing it in action for the past eight years with the only notable exception being Captain America: Civil War (and that’s mostly because they focused on pitting the characters you’ve come to known against each other rather than stopping a world ending threat). So too you have it with this film where a protagonist (with an admittedly interesting inner turmoil) is thrust into an apocalyptic conflict orchestrated by a severely underdeveloped villain using a bunch of McGuffins. It’s not horrible, but it’s entirely fair if you think this makes Marvel films “predictable.”
But what isn’t predictable is the visuals employed to tell this particular Marvel story. Doctor Strange comics were always known for jumping into paranormal tales that fuse Eastern mysticism to Western concepts of infinite realities, but they did so through gripping imagery. And that’s exactly what you get for a big screen adaptation of the “Sorcerer Supreme,” making this one of the most visually pleasing films of the year, and indeed several years since the beauty of Inception. But whereas Inception toyed with gravity and rearranging cities to make a point about how dreams work in a few scenes for the film, Doctor Strange revels in kaleidoscope-manipulated cityscapes as just how “reality” truly is and the scenes are central to the plot of the story. So it’s not just interesting to witness the visuals, they actually serve a purpose in demonstrating how this world works…but it really helps the visuals are phenomenal to look at.
Seriously, DO NOT take hallucinogenic drugs prior to seeing Doctor Strange because I can’t imagine how you wouldn’t flip the fuck out upon seeing everything here. In any event, some of the sequences in this movie are worth the ticket price alone, from the twisting cities you saw in the trailer to a brilliant moment where the heroes and villains fight in real time while the environment around them goes in reverse. Or perhaps the other memorable standout was when Benedict Cumberbatch gets his first taste of multiple realities in a gorgeous three minute sequence where he’s being sucked across space time and you see him flail about screaming (I imagine the filmmakers probably slipped him some shrooms and just filmed his reactions in front of a green screen).
Incidentally, Cumberbatch settles into the role of Marvel’s latest on screen supehero with the comfort that his future costars demonstrated in sequels like The Avengers or Captain America: Civil War. He even pulls off a decent American accent even if you can hear the ol’ Sherlock tics, especially when’s acting like a condescending asshole in the beginning of the flick (though that’s probably what attracted Marvel to him in the first place). He also takes this shit seriously to demonstrate a guy at the end of his rope who quickly finds himself way in over his head as he’s forced to fight ultra powerful wizards across various planes of existence. That’s not an easy task especially when several of the things he witnesses were likely against green screen and he’s forced to just imagine that shit, but that shows his caliber as an actor.
The rest of the cast is also pretty excellent, most notably Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo, a powerful sorcerer loyal to the Ancient One almost to a fault. The cool thing is that this Academy Award winning actor is treating this Marvel flick like it’s freaking Shakespeare, delivering every line with gravitas and a small wry smile to expose his character’s humanity. So of course I fucking love him, especially since I know his place in the Doctor Strange mythos means that he’s going to make for an even more interesting character in future installments (because Lord knows this movie will likely yield a sequel).
Benedict Wong also has fun in his role as….Wong, a stern librarian who doesn’t have any patience for Strange’s jokes. The other standout from the cast is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One who plays the role in an ethereal sort of way that you’d expect from someone who looked like David Bowie. Though she does raise the question of the whitewashing epidemic in Hollywood of a Celtic woman playing the role that was originally written as Tibetan man. The problem I find is that with Doctor Strange, you Ave a lose-lose situation going on: you either cast a different race for a character that was essentially a racist caricature of the wise Eastern man teaching magic and self-respect to the clueless white boy or you cast someone of that race and get shit for furthering racial stereotypes.
This is the Kobayashi Maru of casting decisions and to be honest, I don’t have an easy answer to it. I can completely understand why Asian audience members feel jilted that a significant character originally written to be Asian was converted to a different race for a big screen adaptation. At the same time, I wouldn’t consider this casting choice as egregious as casting all white actors for the lead in Exodus: Gods & Kings or the awful Gods of Egypt where minority actors are basically window dressing. Instead, Doctor Strange chooses to recast this order of mystics with a multicultural cast from Ejiofor to Wong to Swinton to communicate something bigger than a specific region. Admirable, but I can still see how this would disappoint some people.
Nonetheless, Swinton does an admirable job compared to the other two leads in the movie: Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams. Mikkelsen plays generic Marvel Villain #10 even though he does offer slight hints that he’s a dark reflection to Doctor Strange’s own ambition. But I think this protagonist-antagonist mirror worked better in Up as you got to know your hero’s spirit throughout the film only to be confronted with something very, very sinister. But Mikkelsen is simply not given enough time to be fleshed out, a critique that can also be levied at McAdams’ character who might as well be known as “the girl.” Wisely, the screenwriter do not make her a damsel in distress but instead one who saves Strange big time. She doesn’t require protection nor needs a man in her life, and could have served as a support character that leads Strange down the path to redemption…but the film doesn’t have time for her.
That’s because the film moves way too fast. It’s a very enjoyable action movie; but for something dealing with the metaphysical concepts as well as questioning reality, it really should have slowed the hell down and let me enjoy the character interactions as well as be soaked in the gorgeous imagery. I’m going to chalk that up to studio compromise with the director, Scott Derrickson, who once again demonstrates a strong eye for arresting iconography that he demonstrated in The Day the Earth Stood Still remake, but unlike that messy film he has the benefit of a highly polished screenplay courtesy of the writer to his last solid horror production, Sinister. That would be C. Robert Cargill who aside from being a former film critic, wrote a pair of extremely clever novels dealing with myths and horror legends crafted around a story with thoroughly enjoyable characters. And that’s exactly what you get for this movie along with some smart dialogue befitting each cast member perfectly. Production wise, this pair make for an excellent team to deliver a solid production.
As far as Marvel films go, it’s not among my all time favorites of Guardians of the Galaxy or the excellent Captain America: Civil War, but it ranks somewhere between the enjoyable Ant-Man and the solid Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This movie is all about enjoying a self-contained story first, and comic world building second even if the pace conveys there’s something more to story of Doctor Strange. The sequel stuff doesn’t come into play until the very end of the flick and the mandatory post-credits stingers, so you can easily take them out and still have a thoroughly entertaining film. The funny thing is, for all the critiques that Marvel builds these films by committee, they still allow for unique visions to contribute to the framework established in other films that can provide a different tone and viewpoint from the rest that I can easily see this film becoming a fan favorite for some people.
And just because I like baiting people, yeah Doctor Strange absolutely shits all over the maligned Suicide Squad which bragged up to release its “director-driven” production despite winding up to be a casualty of heavy studio and marketing interference. And even though Doctor Strange talks about concepts of death, time, and decay, it’s told in such a human and relatable way compared to the self-important and self-worshiping clusterfuck that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. When will I stop shitting on DC movies you ask? When I’ve extracted every ounce of entertainment they promised me and when they actually make a decent flick.
I think I’ve covered the gamut of what works and what doesn’t hit the mark for this film, so I’m going to award this a low but nonetheless recommendable…