Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016)

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence

Score: 3 out of 5

It had to happen sometime. The warning signs were there in prior films, but even discounting them, the simple law of probability said that Marvel's impossibly good run would not, could not, last forever. Don't get me wrong, I still liked Doctor Strange. But I liked it in much the same way that I liked Spectre: as a visual feast of a popcorn blockbuster whose inner structure is remarkably unsteady. The protagonist didn't click with me like past Marvel superheroes have, the love interest is a glorified bit player, there was only a handful of really interesting supporting characters, its treatment of the Eastern philosophy the protagonist's powers are rooted in is shallow, and for all its talk of introducing the more esoteric and spiritual elements of the comics to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its story largely sticks to formula and doesn't really exploit that fact beyond its visual set-pieces. These problems cause all the other historic Marvel weaknesses -- a generic villain, an unsure tone that doesn't know when to be funny or serious -- to stand out that much more. Even so, however, the visuals alone make this film an absolute joy to watch, with a number of stunningly inventive scenes that feel like they came from the mind of Timothy Leary, appropriately enough for a character who became a hippie icon in the '70s. Despite having only seen this in 2D, this is one of the few blockbusters where I will wholeheartedly recommend seeing it in 3D, purely for its acid-trip special effects; actually dropping acid or getting blazed out of your mind beforehand is purely optional, but recommended. If you're a Marvel fan already, or just looking for an entertaining two hours, you'll probably enjoy it, but you may find yourself longing for more.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a top-flight New York neurosurgeon whose brilliance and skill have won him fame and acclaim as one of the best in his field, though on the downside, he has also developed a colossal ego. His life gets turned upside down after a devastating car accident (hang up and drive, people) leaves him with severe nerve damage in his hands, such that he has trouble shaving and writing his own name even after therapy and surgery. With his career ended literally overnight, Strange becomes a shell of himself, his colleague and ex-girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) caring for him as he desperately seeks a way to fix the damage and return to his livelihood. His search leads him to Nepal, where a mysterious woman known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) leads an order of warrior monks who have tapped into mystical energies from beyond our realm -- in other words, the Marvel universe's version of magic. Initially skeptical, Strange soon emerges as a powerful magical warrior as he overcomes his physical handicap, while also learning some much-needed humility along the way. There's also this little problem involving Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One's who turned evil and now serves Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, a place where time and death do not exist.

Let's get that villain out of the way first. Kaecilius is your generic Marvel doomsday villain to the letter, with Mads Mikkelsen given almost nothing to chew on, which is a shame, because the film did present a path to make him more interesting. We  learn that he thinks his plan to merge Earth with the Dark Dimension will actually save the people of Earth from the specter of death, having been driven to where he is after he lost his loved ones. This could've been used to establish him as an extremist with good intentions, but this only comes up in a single line of dialogue, and never really seems to inform his character much beyond that. Complaining about bland villains in Marvel movies is old hat, though, so let's get into the real problem: Doctor Strange himself. They're clearly channeling Tony Stark with this character; Robert Downey, Jr. can't do these movies forever, after all, unlike in the comics where characters don't age. And Cumberbatch does a good enough job, but again, he too isn't given much of a character to develop. The central arc of the film hinges upon him learning how to be less of an asshole and more humble, yet him being an asshole isn't particularly well-established in the opening act. We get scarcely any time with him before his accident, and after that, his personal and professional life in New York soon takes a backseat. Rachel McAdams vanishes from the film after the first act, only showing up briefly after that and finding herself sidelined otherwise, despite ostensibly being his love interest. The only characters who really connected with me were Tilda Swinton's Ancient One and Chiwetel Ejiofor's Karl Mordo, one of her underlings and close allies. Without spoiling anything, their arcs are intimately connected, as the both of them react to fundamental contradictions between the Ancient One's philosophy and her actions. Whereas the entire cast was solid across the board, it's Ejiofor and Swinton who truly stand out, as they, ironically enough, had more to do and received more development than the actual protagonist.

This leads into the second half of this film's great problem: the story and themes, or rather, its shallow treatment of such. This was hyped up as the film that would bring magic into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or at least a quantum physics-tinged version of such in keeping with the rest of the series' scientific orientation. It's all given a heavy flavor of Eastern mysticism, specifically the sort that inspired Western hippies and New Age gurus in the '60s and '70s. While this stuff definitely looks cool up on the big screen, it informs the visual design of the film more than anything else, as otherwise, the structure of the film largely sticks to Marvel formula. Charging through Strange's studies and training not only robs him of what should've been his central character arc, it also leaves the film's interpretation of its mysticism feeling empty. It becomes little more than a vehicle for learning how to teleport and kick ass with the power of your mind, as opposed to an actual philosophy to live one's life by, doing a disservice to the real-life religious beliefs it is rooted in. This shallowness clouds every aspect of the film; Kaecilius' rebellion against the Ancient One had little behind it, Dormammu is little more than a generic Satan analogue, and as mentioned earlier, Strange doesn't get much of a character to develop.

All that being said, I still liked this movie, and it all came down to the action set pieces, the sense of humor, the visual design, and some of the more creative twists it took on those levels. This is a movie that I honestly should've seen in 3D, because some of the special effects trickery here is downright mind-blowing. This may be your typical Marvel movie in terms of structure, but when it comes to visuals, it blew my mind. It looked and felt not just epic, but like a psychedelic acid trip come to life (...not that I know anything about that sort of thing), and the visual effects used to bring it all to life were astonishing. Right off the bat, director Scott Derrickson goes all out with a reality-defying fight scene where buildings in London are bent around like an M. C. Escher drawing and the rules of gravity cease to apply, and he continues on from there, with a ghostly battle in a hospital, a far more elaborate version of the aforementioned scene in New York, and a battle that takes place while the rest of time -- including the obligatory destruction -- is flowing in reverse. And the climax? Without spoiling anything, let's just say it consists of Strange essentially trolling the villain into surrender, in a scene that I'm already seeing quoted across the internet. The movie's sense of humor was another redeeming value; even if it could, at times, lessen the stakes of the events (a pivotal scene with McAdams' character is undercut by a joke soon after), given the film's other problems in storytelling I'm not about to fault it for this one. Cumberbatch was in his element here, playing Strange as a snarky bastard in how he interacts with the other characters, such that, even if he didn't really get much time for character development, he was still good at making the fairly two-dimensional archetype that was Doctor Strange entertaining to watch on screen.

The Bottom Line:

At the end of the day, that's what really saves Doctor Strange: it's entertaining. It's easily one of Marvel's lesser films, but it's still one that I had a good time watching, and one that doesn't really require a solid grasp of the MCU going in. Quite enjoyable, and worth a matinee.

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