Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange: Marvel's Most Literal Movie Magic


"I've come to bargain..."

Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe began this year with Captain America: Civil War, an absolutely A-grade thriller. The next in the series, Doctor Strange, has a lot of hype to live up to - not only as Civil War's follow-up, but also from hype of its own making, with the marketing campaigns highlighting what promised to be the movie's greatest strength - its unique visual style, completely new for the MCU.

Welcome to the New York Sanctum.

A few people were leery of Benedict Cumberbatch getting cast in the title role, but me. I thought he pulled it off perfectly. He brought the right amount of arrogance and snark to channel his inner Dr. House - and hell, with his gravelly American accent (not as good as Hugh Laurie's, but then Laurie wasn't quite perfect either), he sounds uncannily like Fox's former favorite pill-popper. But then this origin story takes a huge turn off a cliff, literally, when Strange gets distracted while driving and crashes his speedy Lamborghini. His origin story parallels that of Tony Stark very strongly in that respect - a rich genius playboy (though Strange is neither a billionaire nor a philanthropist) who falls from decadence and learns a few long-overdue lessons in humility.

And that's not the only lessons he learns. On the advice of a man who seemingly pulled off a miraculous recovery from a paralyzing spinal injury, he goes to Nepal to seek spiritual enlightenment at a place called Kamar-Taj.

There, he gets a little more than he bargained for. He finds his way into a world of sorcerers, and under the guidance of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton being, well, Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (traditionally a villain, but prepare for some surprises), starts to learn the magical arts himself. Everyone has the power to draw on the energy of infinite other worlds, it seems. All one has to do is learn how to harness it.

Naturally, there are those who don't harness it properly. Enter our villain, Master Kaecilius (is Mads Mikkelsen ever a good guy?) He's been drawn in by an evil god's empty promises of immortality and being one with the Dark Dimension - a little bit of subtle Satanism in a movie where the mysticism is otherwise predominantly Eastern - and now he's out to bring the Ancient One's world crashing down around her ears.

This is when Strange must stand up to be counted as a hero - and overcome his primary flaws of arrogance and anger. And, if Mordo is to be believed, his unwillingness to kill. Sure, a lot of his fellow comic-book heroes make it a point of not killing - Batman and Spider-Man in particular come to mind - but hey, given how deadly Kaecilius and his minions are...

Overall, the movie's one major weakness is the basic story, which I've recounted as much as I can without spoilers. It's a unique, fresh twist for the MCU, dovetailing beautifully with the introduction of Ghost Rider and the Darkhold on the current season of Agents of SHIELD, but it's another origin story, and it carries a lot of the same old tropes we got in Iron Man, Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man, etc. etc.

However, what sets it apart from a lot of previous MCU installments (particularly those of Phases One and Two) is its more serious tone. Though it's still lined with considerable levity - a few one-liners and sight gags got the entire theater roaring with laughter. It doesn't have the same emotional range as, say, Guardians or Civil War or The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Big Hero 6 - that is to say, fewer big tear-jerker moments, although there's one death scene in particular that'll give you some real feels.

Characterization is done very interestingly too - Doctor Strange is the most anti-heroic MCU film since maybe Guardians of the Galaxy. Strange himself, as stated above, is quite flawed - although the Cloak of Levitation can look beyond that enough to take a considerable liking to him. (You're gonna love the Cloak, that's for sure. It's got an eerily similar personality to Aladdin's Carpet.) But Strange isn't the only complex character in this movie. Mordo, Wong, the Ancient One, even Kaecilius show considerable depth and dynamism. And they're all deadly badasses. Did I mention that?

This badassery extends to the filmmakers as well - especially those responsible for the movie's visual effects, which, as promised, are incredible. Think Inception on steroids, kaleidoscopic and gravity-bending. Most of these action scenes take place in a "Mirror Dimension" in which reality itself fractures into broken shards, but it has no effect on the real world - at first, the Ancient One introduces it to Strange as a safe space to practice his powers. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 won't give up its throne as my favorite visual-treat movie easily, but Doctor Strange is the closest contender yet to TASM 2's electric slow-mo awesomeness. The only reason why Strange doesn't quite manage to take the throne is because while its effects are top-notch, they have a habit of upstaging the human actors because they're so prominent in their otherworldliness. Your eyes will want to follow the warping matter (which makes the sort of mechanical clicking sounds you'd expect the model machinery behind the Game of Thrones opening credits to make, if only they were actual models instead of CGI - and if only Ramin Djawadi's ear-worm theme tune wouldn't play over it) instead of the fighting sorcerers.

But hey, we'll always have the scene where the Ancient One first blasts Strange's astral form out of his meat-suit physical shell. That part, with all the wild colors and ridiculous speeds and Michael Giacchino score, feels like a Disneyland ride. Thank God the trailers never showcased that particular highlight so much. And also, the chakra-like light shields the sorcerers like to use for defense - these remind me so strongly of Stark tech that they feel like perfectly MCU-aesthetic magic.

But I'm going to go back to the Ancient One for a moment so I can address the controversy surrounding that character. One of the screenwriters, I think, called her casting a "Kobayashi Maru" for Marvel - essentially unwinnable. Cast an Asian person and the movie would run the risk of presenting the Ancient One as an offensive "Magical Asian" stereotype, so the movie went the other way and rewrote the Ancient One as Celtic, though still ambiguously Asian in appearance. While a testament to Tilda Swinton's chameleonic acting style, given the character's standout complexity, Marvel really should have striven harder to cast an Asian actor in the role. Director Scott Derrickson, however, has spoken on this controversy with considerable candor and awareness, much more so than a lot of his contemporaries - and of course, the movie does, to its credit, further distance itself from harmful stereotypes by rewriting Wong, who (as I understand) used to be a manservant, into a librarian you'd do well not to cross.

Doctor Strange isn't a perfect movie, and it's certainly not the MCU's best, but as a shaker-upper, it does its job beautifully. From me, it gets an A-. 

And so we close the book on MCU movies of 2016. Next year, we're getting the most yet, I believe, with three - Guardians Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. All of which I'm really looking forward to, especially the former two because for sure they'll keep Phase Three from getting too grimdark.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

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