by Michael B. Hock
Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies are interesting to me. On the one hand, there’s the sheer childlike joy from finally seeing the big-screen, live action team ups of your favorite heroes. Sure, Captain America and the Hulk teamed up before in the 1970’s on television. It was ok, but does it compare to seeing the Hulk tear through a South African town, Tony Stark ready to take him down?
On the other, there’s balance that needs to be struck for the casual movie-goer that Marvel wants in this movie. And that’s important, not everyone who is going to see Doctor Strange is up on his deep backstory, how he used to dress in a hoodie, and just why he was largely responsible for kicking the Hulk of the planet in the comics. It make sense that some of that is taken away. But it makes me nervous, because most of the time Marvel makes this more accessibly by laughing at those of us who like these things, and making it appear as if it’s ok to laugh at people who like comic books. Take a look at the marketing for Guardians of the Galaxy which largely centered around “you’ll never believe who these guys are” and Ant-Man which is largely built around “he’s Ant-Man. Isn’t that funny? Pay attention the Paul Rudd version and not the abusive alcoholic.” (Full disclosure: along with Doctor Strange, these may make my top 3 MCU movies).
So when I heard they were making a Doctor Strange movie, my first thought was, “wow, I hope they cast Benedict Cumberbatch to be in it” and then “how are they going to deal with the magic when they went through every explanation possible to show us that Thor was just science?”
The answer” they embraced the magic. And they’re better off for it.
Doctor Strange, for those of you who don’t know, is the story of… well,
Tony Stark Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch… I was right!) , a brilliant but egotistical inventor and weapons manufacturer neurosurgeon. One day, while driving his super-cool sports car and doctoring while driving, he crashes and crushes his hands, effectively ending his career of being a brilliant neurosurgeon, but setting up his career as the head of diagnostics in a New Jersey hospital. (That’s a reference to the TV show House, kids.)
His hands and dreams crushed, Doctor Strange heads off to Kamar-Taj, because experimental exoskeletons aren’t yet readily available to anyone who’s not an Avenger (yet) so the supposedly rational Doctor can learn magic, and eventually heal his hands. He ends up meeting the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who teaches him that the true magic comes from within, and from several different dimensions. Some have demons.
Right off the bat, it’s important to note that this is pretty much a standard “oh, look, it’s an origin story” origin story. By that I mean that, “oh, look he’s doing something egotistical!” “oh, look, but he’s the best!” “oh, look, all is lost!” “oh, look he’s learning his lesson!”. You could pretty much go watch Iron Man, set your watch to the character beats, and predict when these things will happen on Doctor Strange. Only, you know, without the terrorist seeking missiles .
That’s not to say this is a bad movie. Not by a long shot. It’s a familiar movie. There’s nothing wrong with familiar movies. One of my favorites The Big Lebowski, is a standard film noir that is elevated by some simple tweaks to the formula and some acting. Fortunately, Doctor Strange has plenty of that.
A lot of people are focusing on how the visuals are damn near mind bending, and they aren’t exaggerating. Let me add my voice to the chorus that is saying that this is one of the more visually innovated movies I’ve seen in a very long time. Not just with the twisted, puzzle-box version of cities we’ve all seen in the trailers (letting you know that everything is mind bending) but also in the way that magic is used. It would be easy to have the standard spells and flashy lights that come with each spell, but the effects that are used are unique, giving the impression that each one has it’s own not just use, but personality with the user. This is particularly evident as Doctor Strange first begins his journey, where his spells spark and fizzle out as he begins to cast them.
These spells are also used well in combat, so it is more as if we are getting magic ninjas instead of the standard “let me wave my fingers at you funny”. It’s a lot cooler than I’m making it out to be.
A movie like this rests on the performance of its stars, and there is no cause to be disappointed. I could write pages about Swinton’s Ancient One (controversies aside… I’m not sure how to address this one, so I’m going to stick to her acting). She gives off an otherworldly vibe in every scene. Benedict Cumberbatch is very Doctor Strange-like, which is great because that’s a lot of what the role calls for. I wish they had played up his arrogance a little more, but Cumberbatch really does sell the character, taking care to play off the character in an odd combination of knowing everything, and yet open to new ideas.
I do have to point out one of the best things of this movie is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, loyal follower of the Ancient One. Followers of the comics (and those who sat through the credits) know where his story goes, but rather than play him off as a one note character, Ejiofor gives him depth. Almost to the point that I was perfectly willing to not only accepted what happens to him, but I could almost get completely on his side as well. He’s going to serve the franchise (Even if it hadn’t made 85 million dollars, it was going to be a franchise, kids) well over the next few installments. Even if you hate comic book movies or you hate Cumberbatch for some reason, you’ll love Ejiofor’s performance. Loyal and heartbreaking all in one.
Praise aside, it does suffer from some of the late-era Marvel movie problems, such as trying to maintain the ongoing Infinity Stone storyline (which just keeps going) while letting everyone else know they’re not taking everything too seriously (the wifi password joke that was in every trailer, a quick reference to the events of Civil War which is either a dark commentary about how this world views it’s emerging superheroes, or is a stupid joke that probably should have been cut.) That doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a solid movie.
The best Marvel has done this year.
Hamlet T. Wondercat Says:
Out of Five