Thursday, 24 November 2016

Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016)



It’s Marvel time again and, while not quite as problematic as Civil War, we are once again dealing with a rather tricky bit of comic book adaptation history. We’re furthering our way into Phase 3 of the Cinematic Universe with an origin for yet another superhero who doesn’t exactly have the best on-screen history. Way back during the days of the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk TV show, Stan Lee and CBS attempted to kick-start a Doctor Strange series to run alongside Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man. Needless to say, it didn’t end well and the series wasn’t picked up for glaringly obvious reasons. However, unlike Spidey and the Hulk, this was the first and, up until now, only live-action appearance; there isn’t any form of reputable precedent for this one. Say what you will about Guardians Of The Galaxy, at least that film was able to completely blindside audiences thanks to a complete lack of mainstream recognition. Strange, on the other hand? Not so much. This may be one of the bigger tests of Marvel’s uncanny ability for consistent quality standards, even more so than the talking raccoon who is best friends with a talking tree. Time to put reality through the wringer; this is Doctor Strange.

The plot: Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliantly talented neurosurgeon, gets his hands irreversibly broken in a car accident, effectively ending his career. Desperately searching for a means to repair his hands, he makes his way to Kathmandu in search of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystic who has learnt how to manipulate the building blocks of the universe (and other universes) to do impossible feats. While under her tutelage, he also learns of a renegade master named Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen) who plans to use his powers to bring about the end of the world. It’s up to Strange and master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to stop him before Kaecillius brings the full force of the Dark Dimension down on their heads.

Marvel has always had a handle on its casting and this is no exception to that. Cumberbatch may have a pretty shaky history when it comes to American accents, but credit where it’s due in that he manages to do fairly well with it here. He also succeeds at performing the Iron Man performance trick of being extremely egotistical and extremely engaging in equal measure. Ejiofor, aside from managing to dodge being just a Magical Negro character, makes for a really nice buddy team with Cumberbatch, making for some very entertaining exchanges. Swinton has always had a very inhuman presence to her, even in films where it isn’t called for, so casting her as a master of bending and reshaping reality works out remarkably well. Mikkelsen is surprisingly fleshed out and humanized for what is essentially a nihilistic villain, making this otherworldly-level threat feel grounded and managing to further the film’s attempts at creating thematic conflict between the larger good guys and bad guys. Benedict Wong is a little underutilized but still entertaining as master… uh, Wong, and Rachel McAdams’ relatively smaller role as Strange’s colleague Christine actually works out better because it’s a relatively smaller role, rather than being a stock love interest.

I brought up Iron Man earlier and, as an origin story, this has quite a few similar notes in terms of the character and his circumstances. However, for as much as it can feel like we’re watching a re-skin of an older story, it still succeeds at what it tries to do. It does a good job of introducing us to this new character, connecting him with the audience as well as bringing in a new facet of the Marvel Universe into the canon; that being the inner workings of magic and just how much it is capable of. However, more so than superficial personality similarities (because, let’s face it, a lot of comic book characters have duplicated elements between them), this manages to make a connection between Strange and Iron Man that goes a lot further past the surface. Doctor Strange was co-created by Steve Ditko, who along with being behind a lot of fan favourites was also an admitted Objectivist. Now, getting into Objectivist doctrine requires more patience and brain space than I am willing to give up right now, but at its core, Objectivism is basically being virtuous through selfishness. Sounds bad on the surface but, in the hands of Iron Man and now Doctor Strange, the idea of protecting one’s own power from other people because they can’t be trusted to do the “right thing” with it works out really well here, just as well if not better than the Iron Man trilogy. It mainly springs up through the conflict between the Ancient One and Kaecillius, but Strange’s own stance once he starts to unlock his mystical abilities adds to it.

One of the major reasons why people are more willing to champion Marvel as opposed to DC where film universes are concerned is that, unlike DC, Marvel is willing to admit its own silliness. It can, and often does, excel at bringing more mature stories to the big screen, but it isn’t so narrow-sighted as to fail to realize that stories involving dudes in spandex flying, swinging or just leaping through the city can get a little silly. This is no exception to that, as between the in-universe weirdness like Strange’s iconic magic cloak (which has a mind of its own, making me think that these guys got adaptation tips from Simon Belmont in Captain N) and the dialogue weirdness like the frequent fish-out-of-water quips Strange makes when he’s still training, the film doesn’t try and shy away from the humour involved. However, what makes this even more commendable is that, in addition to its balancing of serious and goofy moments, Scott Derrickson and crew knew well enough to avoid the more… troubling aspects of the original stories. Namely, the old-school racism that came packaged with what is essentially a white guy learning the ways of the Orient. For the casting changes that were made, and no I still don’t care about whitewashing in this instance, these people made the right decisions without it coming across like they were doing it solely because a higher agenda told them to (looking at you, Ghostbusters reboot).

The main reason I was really excited about this film, as I’m sure it was for others, was the jaw-dropping special effects shown in the trailer. However, more so than the spectacle of the thing, I was looking forward to it from that because of what it could mean for the character depicted. Chaos magic is an aspect of Marvel comic book lore that, ever since the Scarlet Witch was announced for Age Of Ultron, I have been anxious to see on the big screen; chaos magic is essentially the ability to alter reality to one’s own whims, something that could lead to astounding visuals and story possibilities. Much to my surprise, world-twisting legends Double Negative were not involved with the CGI work here, but hot damn, is this at their level of expertise if not better. Industrial Light & Magic and co. essentially did any good chaos magician does and break the laws of reality to create what might be the single greatest showcase for what CGI is capable of. It builds on what other films have already shown to be possible, like the city-bending of Inception, to enable for some genuinely stunning visuals.

All in all, yet another shining feather in Marvel’s cap that further pushes what not only the company but cinema as a whole is able to accomplish. The acting is on par for the studio’s knack of pitch-perfect casting, the writing goes through a few similar hoops as other origin stories but imbues it with enough of its own identity to warrant its existence, the writing carves out a new niche within the MCU and introduces the more mystical areas to the larger story in a way that starts the larger Cosmic stories on a very good footing, and the effects work is some of the best I’m ever expecting to see. Not just this year, but any year. It’s better than The Accountant, as even as much as I love that film for its treatment of people on the spectrum, its structural integrity left a bit to be desired. However, purely because of that one exchange where the characters discuss suicide (seriously, I am still floored by that sequence), it didn’t rank as high with me as Blood Father. This is one of the few Marvel stories that is actually safe to go in as a newcomer, so there aren’t any lack-of-background reasons not to go see this.

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