Marvel bring another classic silver age hero to the big screen with Doctor Strange – but can they maintain their own expectations? Lee and Darren don’t really talk about that in their reviews – sorry!
The duality of the modern Marvel films revolves around imagination: wondrous concepts explored in a set narrative pattern. Contextually, this is an issue right at this very moment; it threatens to turn the tide of favourable reception back against the company if followed so rigidly. If it ain’t broke, don’t pretend it won’t be fixed forever; it’s a valid complaint and one that bears at least mentioning here, for preservation’s sake.
Objectively, however, the truth is the formula really isn’t broke. The big beats of Doctor Strange are more than enough to win over the masses, and ultimately those who venture forth to the cinemas to see this picture are set to have a great time.
In this story, our title doctor, Steven Strange, is an egotistical yet talented surgeon who, after an unfortunate accident, loses his gift wholesale and is forced to turn to more unorthodox (read: fun, magical) methods to reclaim his old abilities. It’s a simple premise, one that gives us a likeable yet generally unsympathetic anti-hero to root for, and there’s something exciting about the notion of wish-fulfilment here that not only leaves any moral tale shockingly on the cutting room floor but also doesn’t waste too much time preaching and lecturing what is already abundantly clear: Steven Strange is an asshole, and that’s ok, so long as he isn’t hurting anybody.
There’s something downplayed here with the notions of duty, responsibility; something that seems to say sometimes, if you’re someone like Strange, you can be involved in a good thing for the wrong reasons, and maybe that’ll do in certain cases. It’s a little bold for a property catering to children, but all that swearing and violence probably means they’re going for the kids that are a little older, who don’t need so much talking down to and are sure to be refreshed with a little ambiguity in their lives.
Subtext aside, the actual action and surface story of this piece is busy. We blur through characters, most of which are introduced to serve Strange’s character development rather than build a living supporting cast to work with, but for the most part that’s ok; the creativity on show is what really steals the show. Rather than build a roster of genuinely compelling heroes and villains, Doctor Strange lays down the rules to its grandiose vision of a world warped by magic. Not since Harry Potter have we seen such convincingly distorted portrayals of reality, and Derrickson gives the scenes lots of space to take in the view, with a willingness to let the camera float and twist if it serves to better our discomfort.
It’s visually spectacular, as is to be expected, and really brings the action scenes to life as magic fireballs are thrown through voids and glowing whips are materialised in upside-down dreamscapes. None of it helps us care much about the people involved other than Strange, but as the fighting scales and the set-pieces break apart, the world keeps adding new elements and ideas like a writing-room free-for-all. Time warps, animated capes, soul battles, wizard bondage; the movie constantly keeps you on your toes and really enjoys itself when it lets its hair down.
If only there weren’t so many characters introduced, we may even have grown to favour a few. Characters like The Ancient One, Mordo and Wong make for great impressions and their esteemed actors flicker with enthusiasm and depth behind the eyes but we never really get an opportunity to see how cool they are outside their special action talents, and it’s a real shame as a number of dramatic moments do ride on you having some genuine connection to these characters.
That said, there is always a dual purpose to every decision; the new world continues to grow with every loss and every rule, to the point that it feels this movie was made in fast-forward simply to justify stepping off the pedal and going deeper with future iterations. A fine idea, though one that leaves an incomplete and fundamentally flawed initial outing, gambling on investment and rewatch value much like Star Wars in its debut, though not nearly charming enough to scratch that beast.
If that sounds unworthy of your time just by inferiority, don’t be dissuaded. The sense of humour, understated as it is, brings the little moments to life and actually comes to an arc of its own, culminating in a hilariously rewarding and appealing finale. The rest on offer works, if a little on the lean side, and is sure to entertain all but the most cynical of viewers. Kids, especially those with active imaginations, are sure to have a wonderful time with their new favourite superhero, and we really mustn’t undervalue what it is to have an active imagination.
The sixties were weird, right?
I should probably contextualise this a little bit better but I just want to get that thought out there.
The sixties is the decade that we all pretend didn’t happen, combing through it for more respectful historical incidents but leaving behind the crazier aspects from the decade of free love. The only group of people that talk about it a lot seem to be loony literature students (such as myself) gabbing on about the beat generation or the even more mentally unhinged, silver-age comic lovers (me, again) bemoaning the desertion of some of the goofier but fun elements of comics.
I’m not exactly sure the point I’m trying to make here but it does bring a question to mind.
How do you modernise something so steeply rooted in another generation?
Dr. Stephen Strange is the world’s greatest surgeon. With skills that have won him the great acclaim in his field, he has become distant, arrogant and unyielding; he only operates on those that challenge him, using his gifts for more notoriety rather than saving lives. When a tragic accident crushes his hands he goes to great lengths to try to reclaim his old life. But when western medicine fails him, he turns to eastern mysticism to cure his shattered hands. There he learns that there is more to this world than his rational mind believed.
As you can probably tell through that little summary, the story is very classic for a superhero tale. The redemptive arc is a great one for this type of movie and it works so well into the character they have created. The arrogant but highly skilled Strange is a fun character, seated with a delicious touch of irony: he being the only surgeon skilled enough to fix his hands. Oh it’s wonderful, a nice touch that adds a bit of complexity to the disdainful intellectual.
And Strange is what makes this film work. His character has to be the centre point that the rest of the work hangs on. Cumberbatch is a solid choice for the role, although his accent sometimes wavers, never quite being believable. Yet he plays it well, just aloof enough to be a self-centred ass but never too much that you dislike the man.
The rest of the cast compliment him well for the most part though they aren’t developed enough to really hold our interest. Even Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One is good but as a character is very shallow. Most of the rest of the cast also suffer this, even Rachel Adams as Strange’s love interest, Dr. Palmer, who seems to only be there to give us a deeper look into Strange.
This robs the movie of a lot of urgency in a sense. Mads Mikkelsen gives an incredibly wooden performance as Kaecilius, a rogue wizard, making the villain a lot less imposing or threatening than you would assume. And as much as this could be a problem, I see what the movie is going for; the villain isn’t the focus, Strange and his relationship with this new world and its inhabitants are. He needs to find who he is and in truth the other characters are just fodder for this.
The centre of that relationship is Mordo played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Now, comic fans probably know how important Mordo is to Strange, what his role is in that universe but in keeping with the cinematic universe’s “same but different” ideology, he takes a much more centre stage role. Ejiofor is fantastic as Mordo, playing it as a strong but unbending character who is committed to a cause, such as he played in Serenity.
While this relationship is portrayed well, with a nice sense of kinship to a degree, the movie never quite gives it the time it really needs, again pushing it back a little to focus on Strange. It feels like an origin movie, in the strictest sense, giving us just enough of everything to keep us interested and to lay down the paths they wish to go but never fully making a decision.
This ambiguity can work well, especially in terms of the ending conversation of the film, but in many scenes I’d rather there was more certainty. And that’s the biggest problem; this uncertainty pervades the whole film. It doesn’t quite know what it is.
It feels like a classic Superhero flick, ticking off all the clichés one by one but with this more magical identity it still seems a lot fresher than other Marvel fare recently, but then it attempts comedy and mostly falls flat or goes on for too long, making me unsure of what it’s trying to do.
The visuals, while impressive and at times just fantastic, never quite veer into the realm of the unknown, into the psychedelic prisms of colour that birthed it, fearing perhaps alienation of the mainstream audience and so it pulls back and feels lesser for it.
The characters can be complex and startlingly human at times with an ending that I feel most audiences will be let down by, momentarily working within the message of the work before it gives in to clichés and predictable tropes.
Never quite modern and not quite new, it fails to embrace either. It’s too much at war with its identity to really be anything other than what you see. Still, it’s a good superhero movie that I recommend for its fun, its visuals and just plain difference to the others in the genre. It just could have been more.