Thursday, 3 November 2016

DOCTOR STRANGE
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Eijofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelson, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tilda Swinton
Based on the comic created by Steve Ditko
Directed by Scott Derrickson

Reviewed by Patrick and Paul Gibbs

 Out of Four

At this point, new installments in three Marvel Cinematic Universe have become so omnipresent that we have trouble building up a great deal of advance excitement for them the way we do a new entry in say, the Star Wars franchise, or the upcoming return to J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World. Yer Marvel is so good at what they do that we consistently leave their films wildly entertained and impressed with their to keep turning out such satisfying blockbusters. As such, and having little previous experience with the character of Doctor Strange, the new movie was one we were fairly confident would be a decent diversion, but we weren't exactly counting down the days until the release. But once again, Kevin Feige and company have shown that there is a reason that their brand name is so trusted, and they've put a fresh spin on the MCU. It's refreshing in all the right ways, while keeping the combination of action, humor and heart that makes Marvel so Marvelous.

Stephen Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, proving that there are multiple ways to go for ridiculous names. Strange is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose life is turned upside down when a texting while driving auto accident causes him severe nerve damage, rendering him no longer able to perform surgery. After descending into destructive self pity and alienating colleague and former lover Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) the only person who seems to care about him on a personal level, Strange hears of a place called Kamar-Taj, where he might be able to be healed. Traveling to Nepal (which seems like a logical place to find somewhere called Kamar-Taj), Strange encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the mystical "Sorcerer Supreme"("Zero charisma! "Sorcerer Supreme!" "Zero charisma! "You wimp."). The Ancient One introduces Strange to a world of magic far beyond his comprehension as she reluctantly trains him in the ways of sorcery, fearing he could become like her previous student Kaecilius  (Mads Mikkelson), who turned to the Dark Side of the Force or the Matrix or Hogwarts or whatever they call it in his universe.

The inherent challenge of an origin story such as this one is to provide the exposition to bring the average moviegoer who doesn't know Doctor Strange from Marcus Welby into its universe (and regardless of the explosion  of geek culture, popularity on this sort of scale is very dependent on an initiated mass audience) while keeping it sufficiently fast moving and entertaining, and satisfying the dramatic demands of the hero's journey while keeping it reasonably fresh enough that it doesn't grow tiresome. It helps considerably that here we'really exploring a new corner of the MCU, one where technology and pseudo-science are less important than mind-bending mysticism. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still) has created some spectacular and trippy visuals, including a chase/fight sequence that seems to take place inside the mind of M.C. Escher, and he establishes the right tone and atmosphere to keep this world both new to the MCU and yet part of it all. Derrickson deftly embraces the New Age/Faux Far Eastern mysticism of the material, giving it the right level of "there is no spoon" mind-blowing wonder without letting himself get pretentious or take things too seriously. And there is an abundance of Marvel's signature sense of humor, with laugh at loud moments occurring with far greater frequency than the film's overly serious trailers lead us to expect. The last words we were expecting to use in this review were "joyous", "hilarious" and possibly even "frolicksome" (but in a bad ass kind of way.).

Much has been made of the choice to depart from the broad Asian stereotypes of the original comic book, particularly in the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One, who is traditionally portrayed as an Asian man with a white Fu Manchu mustache and goatee. The casting drew protest both from anti-"political correctness" fans who cried foul to trivial concerns like sensitivity taking precedence over absolute fealty to their 137th favorite comic book, and pro-"political correctness" audiences who felt an Asian character was being "white-washed". In the end, the casting and approach works, in no small part to Swinton being a phenomenal actress who can't be constrained by concepts like age, race or gender. While fans would no doubt argue that the cliche supreme of the old Asian master could have been done in such a way that it felt neither condescending or self-spoofing, we respectfully but firmly offer the counter argument "like hell it could".  The approach chosen is successful, giving Kamar-Taj a distinctly Eastern/Asian feel while making its inhabitants multi-cultural, from Swinton's "Celtic" Ancient One to Nigerian descended actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as her disciple Mordo  to the Danish Mikkelson as the villainous Kaecilius to Benedict Wong as Wong, a protector of Kamar-Taj's books and relics (Wong makes a serious play for stealing the film with some hilarious comic moments that never detract from the character's dignity).

The casting of the superhero is always crucial to making a film like this work, and fans of the BBC's Sherlock  know Benedict Cumberbatch is easily a match in talent and presence for any of the Avengers  (as do those of us who were fans of Cumberbatch even before that series made him a rising star.).  The British actor (as if you needed to be told a guy named Benedict Cumberbatch is British) pulls of his American accent nicely (though he sounds exactly like Hugh Laurie doing an American accent. Between that and the character being an arrogant, snarky surgeon dealing with self pit over a life changing injury, at times this feels like House, MD Meets Harry Potter.  Thankfully, Cumberbatch is comfortable enough with the accent that he doesn't lose his any of his distinctive power and charisma as an American. There was a definite risk that Strange could too closely resemble Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, being another arrogant, wisecracking genius (the two actors even both played Sherlock Holmes), but Cumberbatch provides enough nuance to his portrayal to make him his own character (which is not to say we aren't looking forward to Stark and Strange exchanging egos and witticisms in a future Avengers film), and it's great to see him given the chance to anchor a major blockbuster.

That's not to say the movie is quite perfect. It's convoluted and bewildering at times (though some of .  But it works somehow, and if it means bringing the good doctor into the next Avengers film (and it does), we can't complain.
that is very much intentional, in that you're supposed to be racing to catch up with the mind bending twists on reality), it has some of the "we're telling you this story so we can tell you the next one" feel that just can't be avoiding in the ever expanding MCU, and it's frankly a little bit silly to have this movie, which is so heavily built on the idea of the skeptic who does not believe in the supernatural or even in any form of spiritual power, take place in the same world where everyone knows about The Avengers

The bottom line: Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts are now in the shadow of Strange, and it's more daunting than anyone was counting on.

(On a final note, stay through the whole credits. If you've got a brain you know there are stingers worked in (two of them), which is par for the course for these movies. But the ones here are the best Marvel has ever given us. Don't miss them.).

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