Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Doctor Strange," Spectacle Supreme

I had a good time at "Doctor Strange." I want to make that clear up front, because though it didn't meet my expectations, it is absolutely a fine piece of comic-book spectacle that should delight Marvel fans. And perhaps it's my own fault that I was hoping for something more from the film, given that it never pretended it was ever going to be anything but a flashy action flick about fleet-footed sorcerers and mystics doing battle against dark forces with very silly names.

Still, the cast assembled for "Doctor Strange" got me so excited. The brilliant surgeon Dr. Steven Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his colleague/lover Dr. Christine Palmer, by Rachel McAdams. After a car accident destroys Strange's hands and ability to work, he travels to Nepal in search of a cure, where he meets a mystic called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and her allies Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). As Strange trains in the mystic arts, he learns that his mentors are fighting against the dark designs of another former student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson). Of course, Strange finds himself obliged to help them.

There's been a little controversy around the casting choices in "Doctor Strange," mostly related to the Ancient One, who was an Asian man in the comics, and is now a Celtic woman. I understand the objections, but I think Derrickson and his team have done a good job of diversifying and updating the cast of characters. I love Wong, who has been promoted from manservant to warrior librarian. I love Mordo, who gets a great arc and some interesting complexities. And I really, really enjoyed everything that Tilda Swinton brought to the Ancient One, in what's bound to be the film's most iconic performance. She's so boundlessly positive, lighthearted, and just plain fun to watch.

I wish I could say similarly nice things about our main character, but Stephen Strange didn't quite come off right, and I'm still wrestling with the possibility that Cumberbatch may have been miscast. The performance is great when Strange is hurting after his accident, an egomaniac brought low and forced to reckon with his own vulnerability. However, his Tony Stark style quips feel forced, and there's a little too much emphasis on Strange's propensity for being an arrogant bastard. He's really one of the most unlikeable Marvel heroes on the roster, which easily could have been fixed if the movie slowed down long enough to give Strange a few more emotional beats or moments of self-doubt.

But good grief, it's hard to argue that the movie should have slowed down. The greatest pleasures of "Doctor Strange" are its action sequences, which are absolutely gorgeous, inventive, and beautifully executed. In additional to the gravity-defying mystical battles being fought with glowing spells and weapons, there are the trips into different "multiverses," the way that the Dream Dimension turns buildings into kaliedescopes of constantly moving fragments of architecture, and astral projections that allow characters to transcend reality to do battle on different planes. And Strange is eventually latched onto by a sentient levitating cloak, who turns out to be one of the better Marvel sidekicks we've seen.

The biggest achievement of "Doctor Strange" is taking so many weird, high-concept, and potentially silly ideas, and making them all feel like part of one coherent whole. The Asian mysticism is so generic as to barely trip any cultural appropriation concerns, so i think that issue can be put to bed. At the same time, I really enjoy the South Asian aesthetics of the design work, that help to set the magic in "Doctor Strange" apart from what we've seen in the "Harry Potter" films and the like. Also, I found lots of shameless cribbing from "Inception," but we get new variations with so much obvious effort behind them. There is nothing in director Scott Derrickson's horror-heavy filmography that suggested that he was capable of orchestrating so much dazzling eye candy, but he does an absolutely fantastic job here.

So I feel like a scrooge, yet again, for pointing out that if you take away the CGI, the story is very thin, and some of the characters are pretty derivative. Kaecilius is yet another example of the Marvel villain problem, and I was grinding my teeth at how wasted Mads Mikkelson was in the part. And Rachel McAdams too, though at least Christine had some backbone. Dr. Strange himself is compelling, but parts of the character simply do not work. And if I weren't absolutely sure we were getting a sequel that might help fix some of these problems, I'd be even more unsatisfied.

But there will be another movie, which means the good Doctor will have another chance to impress. I enjoyed this fancy light show for what it was, but next time I'd really appreciate a better movie to go along with it.

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