09 December 2016

First Impressions: Doctor Strange

It's about time that I got around to seeing Doctor Strange (2016) - maybe it's fatigue of blockbusters in my old age or merely the shifting interest of my friends, but with each passing year there seems to be less and less incentive to gather together for an obligatory Friday night at the movies. That probably has to do mostly with our jobs and families and all that crap, but there's still a weird personal intersection there with the general crappiness of most modern tentpoles. While Doc Strange isn't really an obliquely exceptional film, it's definitely a cool film and likely worth seeing. With a few days now to reflect on it, I am continuously struck more and more by how much I loved certain parts and how a lot of it didn't really work. I do want to address some common criticisms that also informed my viewing that aren't really true. SPOILERS all the way to the hills from here on out.
"Just give me the Reed Richards with a little
Tony Stark around the mouth."

2016 is shaping up to be a decent year for Marvel superhero films after 2015 kind of whiffed with Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. The latter was serviceable, but not really special, while the more I think of the former the more it dawns on me how much of a mess it was. Getting back to this, I don't think a lot of the Marvel criticism is really valid, at least if we try to go in with fresh eyes and not pre-conceived expectations. Then again, my opinion is just naturally contrarian to everything, so I'm horribly biased against what everyone else thinks is cool. Still, Marvel bucks against this entire statement because while their films can stand on their own (besides a few bits, Doctor Strange largely does), they work much better if you have a pretty intimate knowledge of both the comic sources and the internal mechanics and mythology of the MCU. This is of course, not accidental - this is what sells comics and tickets, people. This is one reason why I still think CIVIL WAR (2016) works so well because it's built on the apex of so much mythology, but it simultaneously wouldn't contain that much meaning to the uninitiated. As a huge nerd I am also biased when it comes to this shit. The weird flurry of names didn't really phase me, and as a lifelong comics fan, rationality never really did. Ages ago. In that same preview post I had yearned for what I called "Kirby-esque weirdness" and holy shit they actually delivered! I'm the kind of guy sitting there actually disappointed that we didn't get one mention of the Vishanti (I guess Agamotto technically, but I want some Mindless Ones or the acknowledgment of Dormammu as Faltine. Actually I would hypothesize that Kaecilius and his followers become Mindless Ones based on how they were sucked into the Dark Dimension. I digress). But all that is besides the point - how is this is a film?

Again, it all comes down to context, which is now unavoidable in the MCU. There are some familiar tropes that crop up again here that aren't all that interesting. Then again, there is a lot of new shit that's crazy interesting and awesome. The whole thing creates this film of extremes where I'm not sure if I'm enjoying the viewing experience or not. I think it comes across as a positive as a whole. Maybe. Yeah. I think. So let's break that down, starting with what sucked:

Unfortunately we have to start with the characters and cast, which is mind-blowing since this may be the most talented group of actors in a Marvel film ever. Of the principal cast (at only eight major speaking roles, it's actually pretty thin), half have been nominated for an Academy Award in the past three years, with Tilda Swinton being our one winner. Still, a lot of them seem to have nothing or little to do, starting with Rachel McAdams. Oh, Rachel McAdams. What happened? It unfortunately serves as another side-stepped love interest in the Marvel Universe, but is it any better than having a chick who always gets kidnapped and the hero's only purpose is to save her? There's not really a good answer until Captain Marvel (2019) comes out. Ugh. How is that 2019. Wonder Woman (2017) may beat Marvel to it, but overall, McAdams has hardcore Jane Foster syndrome here, where it's not really a classic love story with a well-developed character like Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson or...Mera or something. Then again, who the hell is Pepper Potts and she gets a ton of her own development and motivations separate from Tony Stark. There just really isn't room here for McAdams, but she's there anyway because reasons.

On that same path, Tilda Swinton's white Celtic Ancient One is exactly as problematic as casting James Hong or something. Jeez, James Hong is 87. I'm surprised it wasn't Ken Watanabe, Lee Byung-hun, or Jet Li or something. Watanabe in particular seems to be Hollywood's go-to Asian. Of course, all these actors are from different countries, but that hardly seems to matter when you go ahead and cast fucking Tilda Swinton. Of course, you're also damned if you follow the old ancient Asian stereotype. It's like the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 (2013), which was cleverly subverted to avoid the kind of Yellow Peril crap that was popular when all these characters originated. It's progressive by casting Tilda, who is pretty great here, but also regressive by side-stepping Asians at the same time. And it's not like Swinton is a huge name. You could have gone with Fan Bingbing or Zhang Ziyi or something. Actually, let's go back to Jet Li. Can you imagine if they got Jet Li to appear in this? That'd be fucking amazing.
More like the DORK Dimension! Burned.

Chiwetel Ejiofor was actually a weird pick for Mordo, mostly because I'm not sure he can play a warrior or pissed off, which is how I always thought of the Baron from the comic books. He's more a puss, always super vulnerable and crying on screen. Don't get me wrong, that makes him a great actor, but I wasn't sold on his fighting here, at least until the end when his conviction for strict dogma shone through a bit better. I also kept picturing him and Cumberbatch from 12 Years a Slave (2013) and was thinking "Damn this one must have been more fun to film."

Mordo's character from the comics seemed to be represented more in Kaecilius, who Mads "Hannibal" Mikkelsen does a good job with here while actually having the most developed, concrete, and reasonable rationale of any Marvel villain ever. Mordo was always this evil twisted version of Doc Strange, which is the only thing the MCU ever does actually, and Kaecilius is a lot like that, although his precise powers seem to differ enough that he's more like a different sorcerer than anything else. In the end, though, he's really just a dragon for Dormammu, who was awesome and the best scene in the film - more on that later. Still, this "warrior" Mordo seemed to draw from the 2007 animated film, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme, which I always thought of as a dry run for the live action adaptation, down to the near-identical car crash scene.

As for the rest, Mike Stuhlbarg is alright and Benedict Wong, as the most prominent Asian in a film that is mostly set in Asia does a respectable job. There are also apparently brief appearances by Tina Minoru and Daniel Drumm, the latter of which dies defending the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York City, which sucks because that means no Doctor Voodoo?! How can they not want to introduce Doc Voodoo in a future installment? Fucking blows. In the end I can appreciate burning off Kaecilius here to set up Mordo as the main baddie in the future. Maybe he can shack up with Umar and let things get hella weird. Or considering Strange's apparent inclusion in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), HELA weird. Eh? Eh? This is what I'm talking about - appreciating these films on a pure nerdy level really destroys any kind of unbiased opinion I could have.

Anyway, despite being filled with awesome actors, none really shine here. Oh yeah, there is Cumberbatch himself, who seems to be unconsciously or not trying to be Robert Downey, Jr, Chris Pratt, or Ryan Reynolds, but doesn't really have the timing or charisma to do so. That might be part of the intention as his jokes seem to wear thin after a while, and once he settles into the more refined role of Sorceror Supreme at the end of the film he feels a lot less nibbish. This is all of course because those kind of quip-driven protagonists seem to both drive the most money and show up on the most best-of-year lists, unlike some certain DC flicks. So let's move on to some structural stuff:

I'll give this flick props for an origin story for actually getting through the Doctor's origin decently quickly, although the beginning was paced a bit too fast to actually have room for character development. It's a weird complaint to make. We simultaneously don't want an origin film but also get annoyed when that origin is rushed. What this comes down to is actually just having a good movie. We didn't mind revisiting Batman's origin in Batman Begins (2005) because it's done with really precise care in an intricate and depth-filled way. Other reboots that eschew origins include The Incredible Hulk (2008), which wasn't great but wouldn't be improved with an origin re-hash (by the way, does that film actually canonize Ang Lee's HULK [2003] into the MCU?) and the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). See, this is why I can't start talking about comic book movies. I just start thinking of all this crazy shit.

But truly, pacing seems to be a tough problem for Doctor Strange, and the issue is more in the script than the editing or direction. There's not really any great learning scenes, either tangible mastery of skill or technique or internal transformation of selfish to selfless. He just kind of reads a lot of books, has a photographic memory, and is then the Greatest Sorcerer Ever. There's some bit about him being chosen, by the Cloak of Levitation and maybe the Eye of Agamotto sort of, but none of that is really given weight. Again, there's a rushing to it all, which seems like an attempt to avoid the origin story while honoring it at the same time. It's a mess.

Regarding the story, a lot of the criticism I heard going into this film is that it's merely Iron Man (2008) with magic, which isn't exactly true. While their characters are similar, Stark exists in stark contrast. Ho ho hee! Tony loves the limelight, is basically nihilistic at the start, and has tremendous daddy issues, which drive his entire trilogy and subsequent appearances. Strange, while sharing four letters in his last time as well as facial hair choices, also enjoys public appearances, but doesn't quite relish them like Stark (at least we don't see it), and his narcissim is driven much more by his own high esteem of his own abilities rather than any external pressure. This is a subtle change for sure, but their storylines reflect that. While both are injured, Stark's injury enhances his purpose of designing technology. Strange's injury obliterates his previous purpose and forces him to find a new one. Most importantly of all, Stark finishes his movie like he knows - fighting with his weapons and using his technology to defeat Obadiah Stane. Strange fights but abhors it and even his mentor boasts that his greatest skill is his creativity in out-thinking rather than out-fighting enemies, which he actually does. Now, I want to talk about the ending, because that's the best part, but let's lead into that with a discussion of the effects and some other cool scenes.

Another criticism is that this is basically just Inception (2010), which does seem that way from the promotional footage, but really isn't true at all. Besides being completely different movies (that both feature Ken Watanabe!) in theme and construction, Inception's one folded building can't really compare to the constantly shifting landscape, fractalized cities, and gravity changes. Okay, so Doctor Strange had lots of gravity changes, but I'd argue that using gravity to fight enemies actually pushes that idea in a much cooler direction. It's all pretty trippy and I'm not quite sure why that exists or why director Scott Derrickson thinks that's the best way to switch up reality, but that's not even the coolest scene. Well, what should have been a normal chase scene through a kaleidoscope version of NYC is pretty cool, but I'm all about the extra-dimensional stuff.

When the Ancient One mind-melds the good Doctor to open the doors of perception I knew I was on board with this movie. It really trips out and relishes its 1960s LSD-fueled roots and this is no better shown than in the final scene, set in the Dark Dimension. This whole scene is an inverse of more typical blockbuster endings which feature big city destruction set pieces. Instead, by reversing time, Doc Strange fixes everything, while fighting backwards through time, which Derrickson brilliantly conceives on screen. Finally, it ends in the psychedelic Dark Dimension where Strange outwits the omnipotent Dormammu by trapping him in a time loop where he's killed over and over like Kenny McCormick in a big flowing cape. It's really inspired stuff that's simultaneously dramatic, comical, and thematically relevant. It's all pretty awesome.
This should be an alt skin for Marvel vs. Capcom fo sho

The last thing we should talk about is the Eye of Agamotto Infinity Stone, which also bucks the Marvel "Infinity Stone as MacGuffin" trope - since it's more a tool, not something every character seeks for the entire film. At the same time I was disappointed both that Doctor Strange didn't feature the obvious Soul Stone analogue (where the hell are they going to introduce that one? We got Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 [2017], Spider-Man: Homecoming [2017], Thor: Ragnarok [2017], and Black Panther [2018] before Infinity War [2018]. Does it fit in with any of those? Maybe Guardians or Ragnarok. I suppose there's a ton of movies left before Infinity War, now that I see it laid out, but the Soul Stone really fits with Strange) and that it robbed the Eye of Agamotto of all the other cool shit it can do. I suppose they can retcon something or throw something else in there, but whatever.

So as you can see, there are some really great things at work here and a whole bunch of stupid crap. I really think the ending is clever and unique and the best thing that sets this flick apart, while the main issues all really stem from the script as well as external perceptions. Of course perception is the window to the soul, baby! Overall I enjoyed the hell out of this, mostly for its weirdness, and while it could have pushed things a bit weirder, I don't think it would have succeeded as an act in absurdism, true surrealist cinema, or other abject weirdness. My general opinion is that when we see something we don't like or think we won't like something we try to find a lot to complain about. Doctor Strange's goal is to get real weird but also exist within the MCU and keep funneling a now 14-part story that actually made me excited for Ragnarok, which I previously couldn't give less than a shit about.

Speaking of which, what the hell is that going to be about? Supposedly it's a quasi-World War Hulk deal, but also with Thor and Loki trying to find Odin? But wasn't Loki impersonating Odin? And will this now end up being a Strange, Thor, and Hulk team-up movie? Or fight movie? CIVIL WAR LITE in the arena between them three? LITE is certainly relative considering they're all the most powerful beings in the universe right now. Anyway, I'm getting way ahead of myself. We have a whole fucking year until that trainwreck hits, which could be the best Thor movie. Maybe. Anyway, to stay on topic, Doc Strange is the tits.

What did you think?

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