Quick Take: “Doctor Strange”

✭✭✭✩ | Nov. 20th, 2016

Usually I prefer to ruminate, procrastinate, write, read, rewrite, and cry before I publish anything I’ve written, but hopefully these 30-min quick takes will take a bit of my perfectionist’s edge off, and hopefully you enjoy the occasional typo or two. Oh, and it’s spoiler-y.

As many of you know, I’ve become more and more frustrated with Marvel’s ever-growing cinematic (*cough* formulaic *cough*) universe.  I did, however try to clear my mind, biases, and “forget everything I thought I knew” going into Doctor Strange.

I’m glad I did.

Strange is another in the origin story cannon – and another in the ‘white-dude-goes-east-to-learn-something-about-himself’ tradition, too. What makes it more than tolerable tropes, however, is how quickly it makes you forget these facts. Fifty minutes in, renowned neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, whose American accent, while improved from 12 Years a Slave, isn’t quite flawless) has saved a life, proven his arrogance, crashed a car, undergone life-saving surgery, deeply hurt his former lover, spent all of his fortune, lost his aforementioned renown, moved to Nepal and finished his “training”. It’s pretty staggering how much plot director Scott Derrickson and Co. move through without missing a beat – all while peppering in some fun details: Strange has nurses run music trivia for him during surgeries, and its tidbits like these that “feel so good”.

If you’re doubtful about how effortlessly the film’s first act flies by, consider how easily Strange’s most painstaking moment – his realization that he will no longer be able to use his treasured, precious hands – could have oozed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly sentimentality, or how his spiritual ‘mind-training’ could have played like the entire first half of Kill Bill Vol. 2, or Bruce Wayne’s Batman Begins Himalayan hike. No, instead, Doctor Strange‘s first act is never indulgent, and apt in scope: it’s not bogged down by Marvel MCU world-builders or cameo appearances. Sure, it could do with a bit more character time, and – as a Rachel McAdams fan –  I could do with a little less stock-ex-lover schlock and more actual characterization, but – honestly – asking for more would probably slow down Marvel’s vehicle and take away from the joyride it actually is.

Part of the fun comes from the film’s ability to move between serious and campy, but most of it, for me, is in the visuals. I’ve often maligned Marvel for empty action scenes, colorless palettes, and inexpressive images. Mostly, their visuals exist to service story and narrative, and even their color grading has a machine-shop vibe to it. Strange, however, is a delight to watch. Taking visual queues from kaleidoscopic art, Steve Ditko’s original hallucinogenic comics, and previous sci-fi films like Inception, the Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Derrickson creates some of the most visually astounding action sequences the big screen has seen since Mad MaxFury Road. Only, in place of Fury Road‘s high-octane adrenaline rush, Doctor Strange takes time and bends it, reflects it, and kids it. One scene, in New York’s magical Sanctum, has Strange tossing baddies into portals that send them into desserts, rainforests, oceans; one reverses time and plays action through its rewinding, another freezes it entirely. After Marvel’s past 12 movies have essentially adhered to hit-or-miss fisticuffs, this visual inventiveness is a delight, and its delivered with a wink and smile – one of our fighting heroes is Strange’s scarlet cape, played off hilariously like Aladdin’s magic carpet turned superhero. Upending Edna Mode’s famous “No Capes!” axiom, Strange’s mantle strangle’s baddies, prevents him from running the wrong way, and wipes tears from his eyes when he cries too much. It’s pantomime fun with a heart – as if someone cast a spell that brought Charlie Chaplin back to life in cape-form.

There aren’t enough emotional beats or melodrama to laud the performances here, but the talented cast undoubtedly makes the ride all the more fun, Cumberbatch’s confident coolness smoothes some of the rough expository dialogue, Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One delivers spiritual camp like its her job (well…it kinda is), and Mads Mikkelson will please Hannibal fans with his ability to deliver camp dialogue with a wry self-awareness, despite his role as bad-guy lackey this time around. My favorite of the lot, however, is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo – impassioned sorcerer and Wi-Fi password provider (“We’re not savages!”). Ejiofer has proved his acting chops overtly in 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, but he’s got a blockbuster charisma that first won me over in the otherwise horrible 2012, and he truly impressed as philosophical villain “The Operative” in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western Serenity. If Marvel’s usual post-credit stinger is any indication, we’ll be seeing more of Ejiofer’s camp-abilities in a more villainous role next time around. I can’t wait.

In the end, despite its shallow characterizations, glossed-over backstories, and hackneyed plotting, Doctor Strange is Marvel doing what it did best in  films like the First Avenger and the first Iron Man – delivering a by-the-books origin story with a bit of flair and a bit of fun –and more visual flair than they’re accustomed to indulging.

Here’s to more of Stephen Strange… or, at least, more spells, more trippy visuals, and, yes: capes.

Stray Observations:

  • The Music:
    Marvel has also been criticized for unoriginal and unimaginative scores, but bringing in Pixar favorite (and Fringe composer) Michael Giacchino is one in the plus-column for Strange – his score mixes east and west, sci-fi and fantasy, one part Harry Potter, one part Star Trek.
  • Whitewashing:
    Yeah it sucks. How is there only one Asian character who’s pretty much only there for a joke or two at Strange’s behest? It is frustrating to watch, and will continue to be as long as Hollywood turns a blind-eye. They need “open [their] minds” as much as anyone. Bright-side: trailer for Rogue One looks diverse as all hell
  • On that note:
    6/7 of our trailers were sequels or prequels. Hollywood continues to build brand loyalty, and we keep buying tickets. Go see great, original, movies like ArrivalPacific Rim, etc. Otherwise, there won’t be anymore like them.

 

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