Saturday, December 10, 2016

Doctor Strange

Alternate Title:  Mage: The Inception
One sentence synopsis:   A talented, arrogant neurosurgeon suffers a terrible accident, which robs him of his skills, and leads him to seek a mystical cult in the hopes of being healed.

Things Havoc liked: So here we are, fourteen movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we're still waiting for the bad one to hit.

Seriously think about it for a moment. There are fourteen of these movies. More than Star Trek. More than Harry Potter. More than X-Men, and Friday the 13th, and National Lampoon. More than freaking Godzilla! Somewhere between six and nine more are still in the pipe, and more to be announced, I have every faith. Fourteen movies over eight years, and we are still waiting for "the bad one" to come along, despite the fact that several (Hulk, Iron Man 2) already did! Every time one of these damned movies comes out I go creeping to the theater, unsure if the magic will finally collapse this time, if this is finally the one where it will all fall apart, and have described this sort of nervousness in my reviews for movies as varied as Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and Winter Soldier. So yes, I went to see Doctor Strange. And yes, I thought it might suck. And yes, I'm an idiot, because of course it's amazing.

Doctor Strange, in fact, is an amazing movie in the literal sense of the word, and if anybody wasn't expecting that, at this point, then they haven't been paying any attention. Based on one of Marvel's trippiest properties, it is a stirringly-weird, rapid-fire case study in the power of modern special effects and vocal coaching. One of the few films to warrant the 3D treatment, it is eye-watering in its inventive complexity, but as always with Marvel, it's not about the showcase, but the characters, and who better to portray the central figure of this most-American tale, than the most British man in the world?

Hell, it worked for Christian Bale.

Benedict Cumberbatch, he of the name that launched a thousand polite stares, plays Doctor Steven Strange, a brilliant/arrogant neurosurgeon (are there any other sorts?) who loses his ability to practice his craft in a split-second's bad decision. Washed up and desperate, he seeks out a mystical cult (relocated to Nepal from the original comic's Tibet to avoid offending the Chinese censors), and receives training in arcane and mystic arts. This is the kind of story that would be completely insufferable if the main character was played by a lesser actor, but Cumberbatch is not a lesser actor, and is absolutely perfect here (as is his mid-Atlantic accent, frankly). The movie rides the line carefully between a character arrogant enough to warrant comeuppance and a character arrogant enough to make the audience want him dead. At moments, Cumberbatch seems to be channeling Sherlock, but just traces of him. keeping the character grounded enough that he doesn't become annoying, even as the movie punishes and purges his arrogance with revelation after mind-bending revelation. Even with my usual hesitations, I knew that Cumberbatch would be absolutely perfect for this role, the way I knew that Robert Downey Jr. Was the only man who could possibly play Tony Stark, and it's nice, once in a while, to be proven right.

But then Cumberbatch is only one element of a larger group here. The rest of the cast includes luminaries such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Karl Mordo, a villain from the comics who is taken in a completely different direction here, the calm, conservative superego to Strange's impulsive arrogant id. I adore Ejiofor and always have, and he excels in a role that feeds him a couple of the best lines, and allows him to do what he does best, which is slightly detached calm amidst chaos and absurdity. Of course, Ejiofor's casting prompted the usual barking of stupid people who were angry about a black man playing a character who was white in the comics, but then I have the same response to that as I do to those angry about Idris Elba's Heimdall, one far too scatological to include here. Additional roles go to the ever-villainous Mads Mikkelsen, whose Kaecilius (that's not how you spell Caecilius, dammit!) is a twisted, evil dark-mage (the best representation of a Nephandi I have ever seen on screen), and who was seemingly born able to play roles like this one. The reliable Benedict Wong (of The Martian) takes on... well... Wong, a character re-written away from racist caricature and into something of a magic drill sergeant (this is an improvement), while Rachel McAdams takes on the love interest role of Strange's surgical colleague, plunged into the middle of a mystical world she doesn't understand. I'm not wild about characters like this, but fortunately McAdams is a better actress than most who are thrown at this material, and sells it well. The best supporter however is Tilda Swinton, who portrays the nameless "Ancient One", head of the magical order endeavoring to protect the Earth against all threats. I jump at any chance to see Tilda Swinton, and while I'm not unaware of the firestorm that erupted surrounding her casting (the original character was asian), I understand the dilemna that the filmmakers found themselves in. Best then to leave it at the fact that Swinton, in the typical old-mentor role, is just perfect, her own natural oddness lending the character a timelessness that it requires.

Steve Ditko, the legendary comic artist that created Doctor Strange with Stan Lee back in 1963, infused the comics in question with a surrealist art style inspired by the paintings of Salvador Dali and Theosophic philosophy (and probably a whole lot of drugs). There's a limit to just how trippy that a conventional movie can typically get (especially if it wants a PG-13 rating), but Dr. Strange pushes against that limit with extremely trippy imagery. The movie's director, Scott Derrickson has a rather skimpy pedigree, having mostly made undistinguished horror and middling sci-fi movies before this one (he was the guy behind the re-make of Day the Earth Stood Still), but it's cinematographer, Ben Davis, is one of the best working, a twenty-year veteran of action, sci-fi, and fantasy movies (among other things), who also served this role for Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron, which as you all remember, were terrible films without any redeeming visuals :). The magic in Doctor Strange is a hodgepodge of a thousand different ideas, kabbalistic sephirot, Inception-style folding space, traditional sparks and fireballs, mandalas, everything you can imagine, and comes complete with a Lovecraftian nightmare for everyone to match themselves against. It's no Tarsem film, but it does carry a lot more mind-bending alienness than most of the Marvel works, which have always fallen over themselves to keep everything as grounded as the subject matter allows. The better to differentiate, I assume.

Things Havoc disliked: I enjoyed Doctor Strange quite a bit, for those who haven't caught on, but of course there are things I would have changed. The film's pacing is incredibly fast, to the point of being rushed. Marvel may have the origin-story-movie format down to an art form, but there are better and worse examples of the art, and this one, particularly given the visuals on display, leaves our heads spinning as we pinwheel from one obligatory sequence to the next. Moments of character-building feel a bit underdeveloped, particularly ones that afflict McAdams' character, who seems to wind up forgiving Strange his trespasses less because he has earned it, and more because that is what this character does at this point in these stories. At 115 minutes, Doctor Strange is not a long movie, and could perhaps have used ten more minutes of screentime to flesh everything out.

There's also way too much action in the movie. I know, it's a Superhero movie, which in turn is a derivation of the classic Action film, but the better Superhero movies recently have thought outside the box where that is concerned. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-man still had plenty of action but were clearly part of a different genre (Space Opera and Heist films, respectively), and if Strange had been allowed to be something more like a travelogue or a character study, without the need to push quite so many fight scenes into the already-squeezed runtime, then I think we could have had something truly special. Don't get me wrong, such action as we get is excellent, varied, interesting, and (reasonably) coherent, and the final five minutes are among the more inventive things that Marvel has ever put together when it comes to final confrontations. But one gets the sense watching it that Derrickson and Davis never really got the chance to make a great movie with the material on-hand, hamstrung by the requirements to make a good one instead.

Final thoughts:   But, that said, they went ahead and made a good movie, in fact a very good movie, all things considered, so who am I to really complain. Doctor Strange is not the best that Marvel has ever done, but it is certainly a worthy addition to the universe at large, and a fine means of keeping the lights on as we gear up for the massive Infinity War explosion due to happen the year after next. Cumberbatch, Ejiofor, and all the rest will no doubt be returning in subsequent films, and I, personally, am looking forward to seeing what they can do once they are no longer stuck in the necessary structure of an origin story.

And in the meanwhile, those of my players asking what a Mage game looked like? Yeah...

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Best Bird...

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