Monday, November 7, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange

by Patrick Bromley
Marvel continues to move the bar for mainstream nerdiness.

I can still remember back when the first Iron Man was a huge hit back in 2008 and Marvel announced they would be making a Thor movie, I thought to myself "Sure, Iron Man I get, but there's no way the average moviegoer is going to accept a movie about Norse gods fighting and Asgard and rainbow bridges and all the geeky stuff that's part of the character's mythology." And then Thor was released and it, too, was a hit. Then a few years later Guardians of the Galaxy was announced and I once again suspected Marvel might be overestimating the mainstream's tolerance for the kind of goofy shit that regular comic book readers willingly accept on the regular: outer space, talking raccoons, talking trees that speak only three words to represent everything they're saying. Once again, I was gladly proven wrong and Guardians was one of the highest-grossing films of 2014.

Well, now here's Doctor Strange, Marvel's latest attempt to launch one of their characters and hopefully kickstart a franchise, and it's the nerdiest movie they've made yet. That's the best thing about it. Without the super nerdy stuff, this would be just another superhero origin story. At times, it still is.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, celebrated and supremely talented with the confidence and ego to match -- he's Tony Stark in surgical scrubs. When a terrible car accident mangles his hands and takes away his ability to work, Strange seeks answers elsewhere: namely, the secret sanctum of Kamar-Taj in Nepal. Here he learns the mystic arts and sorcery from his new friend Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a centuries-old being who travels through multiple realms and uses magic to protect the planet from every kind of evil. Their skills are put to practice with the arrival of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One who has stolen the pages of a powerful spell to conjure the being Dormammu from the Dark Dimension.

From that plot summary through its marketing campaign, there was very little that had me excited about Doctor Strange outside of my own curiosity -- how would Marvel make what I would argue is one of its less "accessible" characters work in the context of a mainstream blockbuster? Plus, there were all sorts of things holding me back from getting too excited about the movie. Beyond just my superhero fatigue, I never really read nor got into Doctor Strange as a character in the comics. While I recognize that he is very talented, Benedict Cumberbatch hasn't yet give the performance that makes me say "yes, I love that guy" (I haven't watched much Sherlock, so there). Director Scott Derrickson has a body of work that for me has ranged from decent to not very good. More than anything, though, I suspected that Doctor Strange would lean heavily into the mystical, the supernatural, the cosmic, and that's always been a side of the Marvel Universe that didn't much interest me even in my hardcore comic reading days.

The good news is that Doctor Strange upends most of my reservations. Cumberbatch is good -- he always is -- but also allowed to be more charming and likable than he's usually afforded the chance to be on screen. Derrickson proves to be an inspired choice. A devout Christian, his films have often dealt with themes of faith and belief, and he brings those same ideals to Doctor Strange to make a movie that, while not explicitly Christian, is still very much about faith and opening ourselves up to the possibilities of powers greater than ourselves. More than that, though, is how Derrickson, the movie's screenwriters and the VFX team have conceived of inventive and truly spectacular visuals to supplement what is otherwise a very familiar story. There are mind-bending chases through cities that continue turning and re-forming themselves, trips into the cosmos for a brief detour we'll call Black Light Poster: The Movie and a genuinely inspired climax that both works as an antidote to the endless destruction we've seen in the majority of superhero movies and a case of a hero defeating his enemy not through a display of strength or firepower but through intellect, creativity and ability. It's really cool.
Derrickson appears to understand that with the number of big superhero movies we're getting these days (and while it's only a few of them a year, I don't think it's out of line to suggest that the Hollywood calendar and surrounding discussion online feels defined by them), it's necessary to do something different with this adaptation. At this, he is mostly successful. In addition to the trippy visuals, Derrickson is able to take some chances with his casting. Just read the list of stars: Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwitel Ejifor, Tilda Swinton. That could just as easily be the lineup for a new art film from the Weinstein Company instead of the cast of the latest Marvel blockbuster, and I'm happy to see that we've arrived at a point at which great actors can be cast in these kinds of movies and not just movie stars. The audiences will still come.

Not that everyone escaped unscathed. Mikkelsen, through no fault of his own, is playing a generic and forgettable mystical bad guy with very little motivations beyond "destroy your world!" It's cool to see him on screen, but the film makes little use of his talent. Rachel McAdams is given another in her long line of thankless parts; she has good chemistry in her scenes with Cumberbatch, but her role consists primarily of a) being concerned, b) being confused and c) supporting the male lead. She's too good to keep getting cast in these roles, and Marvel has too long a history of sidelining their female leads. She's Pepper Potts and Betty Ross and Jane Foster and, to a large extent, a pre-TV Peggy Carter.
I understand that the casting of Tilda Swinton is problematic in its own right -- another example of whitewashing a character who is written to be Asian -- and it's not a choice I can defend on those grounds. Derrickson has said that he was trying to avoid tired Fu Manchu/Dragon Lady stereotypes, but I can't say that I agree. It's not the race of the character that defines those stereotypes, but rather the way that character is written. At any rate, I will say that Tilda Swinton is wonderful in the part. She's physical and wise without being condescending. There is a light behind her eyes that suggest she is always thinking, absorbing, learning. Above all else, she's so playful and fun without ever going for easy laughs -- something Doctor Strange is guilty of doing far too often. There are jokes that work, yes, and I can appreciate the attempt to add some levity to a movie that would otherwise get bogged down in nerd speak about sacred spells and dark dimensions, but too often a beat will stop cold just for some obvious laugh line that disrupts the sincerity of the thing.
Despite its major plot beats feeling way overly familiar and a few other issues I have with the movie, I come down on the side of liking Doctor Strange for the inspired new elements it introduces both into the Marvel Universe and into mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. With the psychedelic visuals and his tacky disco costuming, I've always considered Doctor Strange to be a real '70s superhero. Derrickson's movie gets that element right, as does the cool score by composer Michael Giacchino (whose best themes don't get as much play as some of the more generic pieces, but they're still in there; stay through the credits both for the two easter egg scenes and for Giacchino's best composition). As Marvel continues to roll out new characters in standalone movies, this is how to do it: hire the right talent, trust them to make the movie they want to make and never be afraid to take the audience to places you once couldn't have imagined they would want to go. Also, it never hurts to include Scott Adkins.

14 comments:

  1. It's a fun movie. Disney doesn't take a lot of risks, but with a few exceptions like Alice: Through the Looking Glass, they generally know how to make solid films. It doesn't hurt that this has been a fairly week year for major theatrical releases, and the last couple months have largely been garbage. Hopefully Dr. Strange is a sign of a good holiday season of movies to come.

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    1. I think we have good things on the horizon. Arrival sounds great, and then there's La La Land in December, depending on how you feel about musicals, and I'm optimistic about Star Wars, too!

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  2. I also didn't really feel much of an urge to see this and went more out of curiosity than excitement. Fortunately, I absolutely loved it for all the reasons listed above, especially because it's different. It did something I didn't know was possible after a summer of loud, ultimately empty "blockbuster" filmmaking: it restored some of my faith in the big studio machine to match a solid, character driven story to a director with a vision that results in movie with some meat on the bones. It opens the world beyond our wildest imaginations; it doesn't limit it and try to keep it contained in a little sandbox.

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  3. Agreed on Mads Mikkelson's villain being forgettable, but that's nothing new with Marvel. As Rachel McAdams has a history of being sidelined, so, too, does Marvel have a history of villain problems. They're rarely interesting.

    Also agreed, however, on the cool Michael Giacchino score. I really liked that element, -and I believe that Giacchino recently tweeted out that he's doing Spider-Man: Homecoming, too!

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  4. Easy solution (maybe) to the villain problem: I don't get why we still haven't had a lady villain in these movies. Unless I'm forgetting someone, it's always generic evil dudes. Why not let Angela Bassett ham it up for a change?

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    1. Suicide Squad had a female villain, right?

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    2. But that's DC. DC has their own problems.

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    3. There was Nebula as generic female sidekick to the villain in GotG. I think part of the the problem is that a) almost all the heroes in these movies have been male, and b) most of these movies end with the hero and the villain physically beating on each other. For better or worse, I don't think Disney is ready to make a movie where Cap kicks the shit out of a woman at the end.

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    4. There's something to appreciate about Dr Strange. The climax isn't too people beating on each other.

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    5. That, I can certainly agree on. I enjoyed the way the climax was handled. It was clever and cool.

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  5. Solid review. I just wanted to add that this movie should be experienced in IMAX 3D. I rarely say this, but DS won't have the same impact when watching it on blu-ray.

    Also, in regards to Mads Mikkelson's villain, I really enjoyed his motivation and his interpretation of the majestic. I personally didn't find it to be as cliched and one-note as some other Marvel villains (looking at you Guardians). That being said, we could have used one or two scenes explaining why he wanted to live forever and become a part of this mecha-verse. It's an easy fix and therefore all the more frustrating.

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    1. Agreed. I liked his motivation, but the script as a whole didn't give him the proper opportunity to express it. They focused more on building Strange, which I completely understand. Mads gave a great performance though, and he had one monologue I really appreciated. Really wish they gave him more overall.

      Also completely agree on seeing it in Imax 3d. The visuals absolutely blew me away.

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  6. I'm glad everyone's digging it, but I really just couldn't respond to this movie. Everyone keeps saying how weird and nerdy it is and I just didn't get that. Apart from the visuals which are flat out crazy and I loved that. But I thought the 'culture' of the magic-users, of this hidden world was so flat. They had literally one purpose, and it defined everything they used magic for, and that was 'defending the Earth.' When Mordo introduced him to magic and he said like, we can conjure up energy from different dimensions which means we can 'make weapons' I just sort of groaned. And it extended to the journey that Stephen Strange went on, which I think the text of the film sort of spells out for us as a selfish to selfless thing, and that's cool and the finale of the film actualizes that in an amazing way. But when people change that much shouldn't they act just a little different? Not in a big way, just a little way, like maybe he learns respect as well or something. I love marvel, in a lot of ways this franchise is what got me into film so I was really disappointed by this for a lot of reasons.

    I really like your review though Patrick! It sort of contextualises where Doctor Strange is in this superhero movie age for me, outlines why Derrickson was such a good choice, and deals with the Tilda Swinton controversy so sensitively.

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  7. Hey Patrick, I was looking for this review and I just noticed that it isn't linked on the Movies A-Z page. Just thought you might want to know.

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