Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2016

Doctor Strange

Standard operating procedure

On Marvel's resistance to true eccentricity, its cool visuals that are only just that, and its stock leading man and their cursory origin stories

Doctor Strange
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, based on characters created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 55 minutes / 2.35:1
November 4, 2016
(out of four)

Call it free association, but the very title of Doctor Strange serves as a nagging reminder of how strange it isn't, how straight-laced it is; the name ends up seeming disappointingly anachronistic in comparison to the film itself.

I realize this, in and of itself, is not a flaw. It's just a title - and secondarily, just a character's name. It doesn't have to mean anything. A movie's title doesn't require anything of it. But it does, at least here, make its actual flaws all the more salient. Namely, that while superhero movies - from Marvel in particular - so often have intrinsically weird or offbeat concepts, they're almost always streamlined into very on-beat, palatable little adventures that don't really explore the very things that make them interesting.

The bigger the concept, the more noticeable the problem becomes. It was certainly the case in last summer's Ant-Man, which started with a uniquely comical idea but was wholeheartedly committed to playing by all the standard rules, as if scared of its own eccentricity. Now we get Doctor Strange, which gives us a world of sorcery and limitless dimensions and yet still behaves like your standard superhero origin story. After a while, the deflating realization sets in that the movie really has no interest in being as metaphysically playful as it could be - or should be. Marvel movies simply don't want to be weird; their commitment to the ordinary remains undisturbed.

Doctor Strange has gotten most of its attention for its visuals, in particular the Inception-styled reconfigurations of physical reality as its various masters of the mystic arts do battle by bending time and space. Walls, buildings, even entire cities shift their physical space. And it's all pretty neat. But it's only that: neat. The effects are terrific, the concepts are cool, it's a nice bit of eye candy. But the movie itself doesn't really play with the metaphysical implications of any of it - it's just a cool visual (and a way to shake up mostly bland action choreography), not a vital element to the visual storytelling. I'm not knocking it ... at least not exactly. It's just that, for all the pretense about the characters protecting the world through mystical energy, setting themselves apart from the Avengers - and for all the demonstrations of its characters shifting their realities around - the movie itself keeps itself completely grounded. The sorcerers in this movie aren't so very different from Iron Man or Thor at all - despite their claims to the contrary.

To take up the most common comparison for a moment, regardless of how you feel about Inception, what's indisputable is that its bending of space and time was a fundamental key to how the film worked. With Doctor Strange, the dialogue insists that it's important, but the film's behavior tells us otherwise. It's very much a "look what we can do" sort of thing. Even within the narrative, the physical manipulations boil down to magicians playing tricks on each other in a mystical game of cat and mouse. It's a trick of perception, but one that ultimately doesn't matter very much - a triumph of CGI on a technical level, but whose application doesn't offer much more weight than usual.

In fact, the way the characters can move around instantaneously through portals - transporting themselves from one place to another - comes across as awfully similar to the climactic action sequence of Thor: The Dark World. At this point, Marvel is basically just re-purposing its own ingredients for each movie, regardless of the vast differences between its films' core concepts.

Still, director Scott Derrickson and a terrific cast have fun with the material, and at its high points Doctor Strange is a delightful showcase for its actors and effects specialists. Curiously, it's Benedict Cumberbatch - playing the neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, who goes in search of ancient wisdom for what he hopes will be a miracle cure after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands - who is most forgettable. He's perfectly fine, but he comes across like a pretty stock leading man - in contrast to, for example, to his idiosyncratic interpretation of an overexposed character in BBC's Sherlock.

Then again, Strange is also written as a pretty stock leading man character - brilliant, arrogant, prickish, but worthy of moral redemption - so perhaps it's not entirely Cumberbatch's fault. Still, the movie is at its best the more it leans on its considerable ensemble - namely Strange's two primary mentors, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as well as Wong (Benedict Wong), a fellow mystic tasked with safeguarding a library of ancient texts and secrets.

A further frustration is the pace of Strange's arc, which the film doesn't seem to have enough time to really contain - at least not with any depth. In an hour and 55 minutes, Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill have to introduce us to the character at his most brilliant, show us his entire fall from grace, transplant him across the globe to Nepal, get him started on the training that will essentially be his character's salvation, dramatize his entire progression from novice to master, all the while slowly introducing both the plot and the villain, which by the end of that relatively brisk 115-minute runtime will have to have been solved and defeated, respectively. As an origin story, it almost can't help but feel perfunctory - there's not enough time and care given to Strange's redemptive arc to make it stick. All of that above and I didn't even mention his contentious relationship with Christine Palmer, Strange's colleague at the hospital and former flame, who fits into the story in bits and pieces but only enough to make clear how much the film is wasting the talents of Rachel McAdams.

The more Doctor Strange settles in, the clearer its failures become. And it's clearer than ever that Marvel badly needs to break out of its shell. This is a story built on ideas so vast that the normal mind can barely conceive of them, yet the movie itself does all it can to whittle them down into tiny, easily digestible notions, leaving behind a vague, superficial coating where the vast and unknown should be.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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