Wednesday 9 November 2016

REVIEW: Doctor Strange

Although Marvel Studios  have seemingly reached the point where they can't do wrong, Doctor Strange represented another gamble. Introducing not just another hero, but also magic and demons, into the Cinematic Universe had the potential to alienate viewers. That said, Marvel have successfully translated properties such as Thor, and even the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy, with great style and success, and while they took on sci-fi trappings, they were all essentially high fantasy films full of inexplicable powers and artefacts. It isn't a massive step to say, yes, there's real magic, plus a million other universes, populated by unstoppable forces and devils bent of world domination.

Like Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man before him, Doctor Strange is another Marvel superhero who isn't unknown, but is far from famous outside the comics-reading community. As with those previous hits, what was required for success is deceptively simple: a reasonable script, a talented director and a charismatic star. Benedict Cumberbatch is perhaps the most obvious choice possible for the role, but sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice. Cumberbatch has said that Strange has "smatterings of the same colours" as Sherlock Holmes, but let's be fair. Strange is 100% American Sherlock (or, to put it another way, House). As an arrogant but nonetheless charming genius who, eventually, becomes a good man, Strange will no doubt remind most moviegoers of Tony Stark. Indeed, Strange runs through essentially identical story beats that Stark did in Iron Man, but it's been eight years, it's not a huge sin to be using these tropes again.

Other roles are equally well handled. Chiwetel Ejiofor reportedly also read for Strange, but that casting would have robbed us of his Mordo, actually a more interesting character than the good surgeon. An outright villain in the comics, here we get to know Mordo while he is still a decent, albeit single-minded soldier, and his gradualy disillusionment and loss of faith is powerfully portrayed by Ejiofor. We'll no doubt see him as the villain in Doctor Strange 2: Don't Text and Drive, and he'll provide what so many Marvel films have sadly lacked: a complex, interesting enemy.

Which brings us onto Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, a character so obscure that most comics readres wouldn't recognise the name without checking the Marvel Database. Mikkelsen is, like Cumberbatch, a reliably powerful and charismatic presence, and faces off against him well. Kaecilius, however, is an extremely one-note villain, and without Mikkelsen's charismatic performance would be instantly forgettable. Sometimes, though, there's enough else going on in a film for a straightforward baddie to be perfectly adequate.

While Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen are safe casting choices, Tilda Swinton has to be one of the most controversial casting decision in years. Replacing the venerable, ancient Tibetan with an androgynous Caucasian woman immediately led to cries of whitewashing. I can't say I agree with this. For one, it seems drastically hypocritical to praise the race-blind casting of Ejiofor as Mordo and then criticise another race change. Also, casting a woman as the Ancient One, the most powerful and significant character in the film, makes up for a heavily male-skewed cast. Other than Swinton, the only significant female role is Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, and while she is excellent in the role, she never gets to really explore the character beyond her relationship with Strange.

It is certainly true that there should have been a stronger Asian presence in a film predominantly set in the Far East. Conversely, though, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of having sterotyped Asian characters, as indeed the original comics did. The Ancient One was very much a stereotypical "inscrutable Oriental" type, while Wong was a subserviant assistant to Strange. Benedict Wong is the only Asian actor to have a major role in the film, but his performance is also one of the most memorable. (He also manages to be both the only actor to share a name with his character, and makes this one of the very, very few films starring two actors named Benedict.)

What people will no doubt remember most about Doctor Strange is its astonishing visual style. It's certainly obvious that Scott Derrickson and his team were heavily influenced by Inception, but it's not as if that came out of the blue. Inception was itself influenced by The Matrix and many other fantastical productions. Elements of Doctor Strange reveal inspirations that go much further back than that; indeed, one brief sequence surely homages the climactic Star Corridor transport in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Whatever the origins of the film's visuals, the voyages into other dimensions and realms of mind are quite breathtaking, making Doctor Strange one of the very few film's I wish I'd seen in 3D. The director's skilled eye extends to the many fight scenes, including surprisingly effective fisticuffs on the astral plane. I particularly loved the look of the spells themselves, with magical weapons seemingly composed from the magical words used to conjour them. Alongside the visual treats and the mystical arts, there's a very effective current of humour throughout, perhaps the best example of Marvel's deftness of touch in its films compared to its rivals'. While far from being a comedy, there are some very funny moments in Doctor Strange, particularly the eponymous wizard's insistance on being called Doctor. (I'm still convinced he should be called Mr. Strange if he's a surgeon. Don't they do that in America?)

For comics readers and followers of Marvel movies, the script was pretty predictable. While just one of many magical artefacts, alongside the Staff of the Living Tribunal and the Pol'ish Remover of Na'il, anyone could have guessed that the great Eye of Agamotto would turn out to be an Infinity Stone. This leaves just one, I believe, unaccounted for, which will no doubt turn up in Thor: Ragnarok. Equally as easy to call was Dormammu's arrival as the Big Bad, played, uncredited, by Cumberbatch using his best scary monster voice. Dormammu's gigantic presence was another treat on the big screen, although I would have preferred him with his traditional big flaming head. There's room in modern film for demons with big flaming heads.

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