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Saturday
Nov052016

Review: Doctor Strange

A slightly abridged version of this review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

For a franchise sprung from the fantastic realm of comic books, Marvel movies have not been particularly exciting on a broad visual level.

Sure, they’ve consistently managed iconic little visual beats within setpieces and that's no small thing. But they’re never suffused their films with eye-popping aesthetics as a matter of atmosphere. (The two exceptions to this rule are Guardians of the Galaxy‘s garish cosmic cartooonishness and Thor‘s brassy mythological kitsch). The Marvel film is more likely to stage its action setpieces and earnest conversations in vast empty spaces like sterile corporate buildings, parking garages, airport tarmacs, or mountain ranges. Given this predilection, the second half of Doctor Strange is absolutely jarring in a welcome way, never failing to give you plenty to gawk at...

But that’s the second half. Rewind. Rewind...

For the first hour we’re treated to your garden variety superhero origin story. You know it by heart, whatever the hero’s name. He, it’s always a he, is designed from the following template: wealthy, white, handsome, well educated, employed with a lauded skill set before superpowers even arrive (doctor, inventor, lawyer, scientist, etcetera), and a Single Character Flaw (usually arrogance/selfishness) to overcome or learn to repress when he learns that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.

The rogue characters that don’t fit this description are generally relegated to the sidelines or, if they differ, differ in such ways as to boldly shout “this one is different!” Doctor Strange, for all its intentions of opening up new mystic vistas within the Marvelverse, is utterly conservative about the template. In the first act Stephen Strange is permanently wounded in a car crash robbing his hands of their immense skills as a surgeon. But he's such a tool it's hard to care.

And thus we begin our quest as Bruce Wayne heads to the Himalayas oh sorry Tony Stark heads to the Middle East argh Clark Kent goes to the Arctic (I apologize it's all a jumble!) STEPHEN STRANGE heads to Nepal to seek a cure / answers / a fresh start. We know he’ll become “The Sorcerer Supreme” in short order but they think we need origin story movies every time so first comes The Journey to Redemption (aka earnest conversations + comic relief + mini action scenes) and the Baptism of Fire (aka world-threatening gigantic action setpieces).

Strange discovers his very own Hogwarts in Tibet with Tilda Swinton in the Dumbledore role as “The Ancient One” who imparts her knowledge. Or some of it.

Tilda Swinton giving someone an out of body experience. What else is new?

The Ancient One is benevolent-seeming but also mysterious and shady (as superhero mentors are required to be — see Scott Glenn on Daredevil, Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D, and so on back through time).

She’s already lost a student to the dark side (Mads Mikkelsen plays the film’s villain Kaecilius) and now she, and her two main assistants Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong, the only Asian actor in a principal role despite the film’s settings which include Nepal and Hong Kong in addition to New York and London).

When Swinton was first cast there was alarm that a role always portrayed as an Asian man in the comics was rethought as a Celtic woman. This would surely have been less of a pre-release controversy had Marvel not been so slow to diversify its superhero army or if they had allowed their other far-East based hero (Iron Fist) to become the Asian character he always should have been in the less diversity-friendly America of the 1960s when he was created. Nope, he’ll stay a white man in the Netflix series.

As a Swinton connoisseur but more broadly as a person with eyeballs, I cannot in good conscience claim she’s anything but the absolute best thing in this movie. Yet it remains an enraging pity that Marvel refuses to fix their diversity problem. We’re 8 years and 14 films into Marvel Studio’s explosively popular run now and they have NO excuse for this behavior. Yes they currently plan to correct this in 2018 and 2019 respectively with the first black lead in Black Panther and the first female lead in Captain Marvel but that’s embarrassingly past due. It’s a pity that Doctor Strange gets bogged down in uncomfortable reckoning’s about Marvel’s racial and gender problems and its absolutely generic story (it’s basically Iron Man with magic) because the film improves considerably as it goes along.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams (totally wasted) are in ex-love. But their relationship is the most disposable part of the movie.Easing the pain of the generic plot is a mix of unexpected organic comedy that springs from the action and characterizations rather than being forced on them (except for a groaner of a Beyoncé joke). If the plot outline and central characterization were half as confident as Scott Derrickson's direction or as inventive as the visuals the movie would really be something. An early recurring image of Strange trying to conjure magic energy before it snuffs itself out is a fine unintended metaphor for the way the movie keeps trying to get started. Still, once Strange starts casting his spells successfully and the film starts freely globe-hopping the movie piles on the delirious visuals to jaw-dropping success. 

It’s as if Alice kept on falling right past Wonderland until she arrived at several crazier places all at once inside of a kaleidoscope and  surrounded by mirrors.

Doctor Strange’s last act is so trippy and exciting — Marvel could well win their first Visual Effects Oscar — that you can almost forgive that generic story. But Marvel really needs to loosen up on the template reigns and let filmmakers free. They’ve got these movies down to a science but science has little room for magic.

Grade: Tilda/Visuals: A-; Story: C-
Oscar Chances: Oscar voters have yet to really embrace Marvel movies in the way they've embraced non Marvel Studios films like the original and influential Superman (1978), the Sam Raimi Spider-Mans, and various Batman films. Iron Man (2008) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) hold the Marvel Studios record with two nominations each. Doctor Strange will surely receive at least one nomination (Visual Effects). Beyond that it has an outside shot at four different categories: sound, sound editing, score, and costumes. Which nominations do you think it'll get?  

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Reader Comments (11)

It'll probably get a Visual Effects nod but that's about it.

November 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMatt St.Clair

Best movie I've seen since the Matrix!
Special effects A+, Fight Choreography A, Acting A, Story... well, C+ and then A ( the origin story first half of the movie is pretty true to the comics if a bit slow, and as the movie progresses the story gets WAY interesting).
One of the few movies that I will buy on DVD.

November 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrotherunity

And the soundtrack is pretty awesome too.

November 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrotherunity

Captain America The Winter Soldier.
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Incredible Hulk
CA Civil War
CA First Avenger
Iron man
Ant Man
Iron man 3
Avengers

I don't see these as rehashe's of the same story. Are they?
I see this particular criticism leveled against Marvel very often. But thinking about those 9 listed above; Is it warranted?

November 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Swindon is the best part, but I kept noticing there was a whole lot of ADR in her performance. How much of the script was rewritten for generic mysticism after she shot her scenes and the world called out Marvel for casting a white woman as The Ancient One? It was distracting in the introduction to magic sequence in the film and quite a few other spots. And then The Ancient One's choice of weapon still made it a problem that a white actress played a traditionally Asian character, no matter how many Celtic circles they threw around her spell casting.

I loved the film and hated myself for loving the film at the same time. There is literally no justifiable reason in the script that Doctor Strange, The Ancient One, and the former student turned villain have to be white. None. The plot that exists has nothing to do with race, and then when race does pop up, it's used for a cheap "look how backwards and behind this culture is" joke. So much is right in the style and approach of this film to just default to white celebrity casting for another tent pole superhero film.

November 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I won't see it anyway.I am really superheroed out.

November 6, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

I thought Strange was one of the more diverse Marvel films. Ejiofor and Wong, anyone?

November 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTr

I honestly thought McAdams was best-in-show in the absolute worst role. A lot of ease, great timing and interesting, organic choices. Also the only person who I cared at all about. But yeah, someone's gotta call an end to the 'Marvel girlfriend' roles. They suck.

November 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Andrew: Biopics and superhero films. More alike than they realize.

November 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Like many MCU films, Doctor Strange attempts to provide moments of comedy within the serious mood of the film. For me personally, it fails to provide the same comedic moments as other MCU films, but is much better than the Thor series. The only part I found pleasingly funny was the part in the end when Doctor Strange traps Dormammu in the infinite time loop. Unlike the Thor series, I found the action scenes not only exhilarating, but also visually impressive, due to the Inception-like CGI. Member berries is a great way to describe the film. As a MCU film, Doctor Strange is something we've already seen in terms of cinematic style, filmic conventions, and narrative structure, but the visual aesthetics makes it an fun flick to watch for both casual and super fans.

November 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel M

It'll probably get a Visual Effects nod but that's about it.

November 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBluetorrent

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