Sunday, November 6, 2016

Doctor Strange (spoiler free & spoiler versions)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Spoiler-Free Section

A solid and fun entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), if not one that I count among the absolute best in the series.

The 14th movie in the MCU, Doctor Strange follows the title character Doctor Steven Strange's evolution into mystic heroism. Strange is a neurosurgeon whose brilliance as a medical doctor is only matched by his own arrogance. Tragedy strikes when a car accident results in severe nerve damage to Strange's hands, leaving him desperate for any type of procedure - no matter how radical - that might return the use of his hands. He follows a lead to a village in Nepal, where he is taken into a monastery that trains people in mystic arts. These arts not only allow their users to perceive alternate dimensions and realities, but also to channel energies for fantastic purposes. Though Strange is initially only interested in regaining the use of his hands and reclaiming his life as the world's foremost neurosurgeon, he is eventually thrust into a battle against a terrifying extra-dimensional threat to Earth.

The first thing I'll say about Doctor Strange is to commend it for being the most self-contained movie the MCU has produced in a while. Even 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy included a few characters and concepts introduced in earlier MCU films. There are a couple of very brief references to such things in Doctor Strange, but not knowing them does nothing to diminish a viewer's enjoyment of the movie. This is something that has inevitably become more and more difficult for MCU films, but this latest movie does it well.

The story vacillates between some very fun and creative elements and some tepid, unimaginative ones. In order to stay true to the comic book origins of the character, the writers opted to follow the model that has already been used in plenty of other origin movies, comic book or otherwise. An arrogant and successful man is stricken by personal tragedy. The tragedy makes him take stock of his life, and he adopts a more benevolent and heroic perspective of the world. Then he saves it. Doctor Strange doesn't deviate from this formula. It does, however, make the protagonist's redemption a bit more interesting through the introduction of magic into the MCU. Strange, a man of pure empirical science, must learn to embrace concepts beyond those taught by Western schools of logic. Perhaps it's a bit trite, but it makes for a decent enough dynamic between Strange and his teachers in the monastery. I'll also say that the primary villains in Doctor Strange do show a bit more imagination and depth than most in the MCU. While the villains aren't as unique as, say, Zemo in Civil War, their motivations are a bit more intriguing than the one-dimensional punching bags we've seen in many of the MCU films.

The characters are just compelling enough, without ever being completely magnetic. Strange is a strong enough character that he can carry the movie, but he's a bit too similar to Tony Stark to feel completely fresh. Doctor Strange's mentor, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is probably the most intriguing character outside of the title character, but we are only let in on so much. There are a few others who show some potential, but that potential never seems fully tapped or explored.

The MCU movies, even the darkest ones like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have always included a solid amount of humor. Doctor Strange is no exception. But while I was amused at some of the visual gags and dialogue, this movie is in the middle of pack in terms of just how funny it was, compared to its MCU brethren. Considering just how funny Benedict Cumberbatch can be, especially when playing a supremely intelligent but dry and arrogant asshole as in the BB''s Sherlock series, I was surprised that he wasn't given a sharper script to work with.

Tilda Swinton is a great choice as The Ancient One - the
Sorcerer Supreme of the Mystic Arts. Her ageless look and
unflappable affect is spot-on.
The visuals are yet another mixed bag that fall just on the right side of the line between "OK" and "good". The fighting and action sequences are nothing special, in terms of the actual hand-to-hand combat. It's probably unfortunate that the Russo brothers have spoilt us so much with the previous two Captain America movies, in which the fighting and action sequences are amazing. Compared to those, the fighting in Doctor Strange often seems very humdrum. Fortunately, the overall visuals make up for it. While one could say that the movie borrows a bit too heavily from the visual wizardry of Christopher Nolan's Inception, it does it with enough of its own flourishes to still make it stunning. When the various sorcerers are warping reality and jumping between dimensions, it's simply a treat for the eyes to drink it all in. Probably my favorite sequence is when Doctor Strange is first hurtled through a light-filled, kaleidoscopic, warp-speed tour of the multiverse. I saw this movie in standard format, but I've already planned to see in in 3-D, on an IMAX screen, if only to see that sequence again. It's one of the trippiest film moments I've seen in a while. To be honest, it's the kind of thing I was hoping for more of in the film.

So Doctor Strange is a solid fantasy action flick, when taken on its own. When taken in the context of the 14 MCU movies released to date, I have it in the middle of the pack, behind the strongest films like The Avengers, the Russos' Captain America movies, and a few others.

Spoiler-Laden Section!! Be warned.

I feel the need to comment on some of the specifics.

Firstly, I have to seriously question just how secure Kamar-Taj has been kept when Steven Strange discovers its existence. So he finds out that some random dude went there and got his broken spine healed, and then he just tracks him down to a local basketball court, shooting hoops? Not only that, but the guy gives up the name of the place in the blink of an eye. I would expect the Ancient One and the keepers of such powerful forces to do much better job of keeping the lid on their practices and their location, given just how dangerous their practices are.

Strange's training provides some compelling and entertaining
moments, but I felt like they could have built his progression
a bit more gradually and creatively.
I felt that the pace of the movie was a little herky-jerky at times. I love a good training montage as much as the next person, and this movie could have used a better one. After he is accepted into Kamar-Taj, Strange goes from struggling beginner to baffling mastery in a span of less than 10 minutes of film time. I feel that the writers could have used a little more time to offer some creative views on just how the system of magic works. Magic is, by nature, a story element that is ripe for creativity. Yet Doctor Strange only gives us vague, standard explanations about "harnessing extra-dimensional forces" and little more. Maybe this is something that will be explored in future movies, but I was hoping for more from this one. I think it would have greatly enhanced the movie if maybe 10 more minutes had been dedicated to the details of Strange's learning the specific nature of the mystic arts and slowly building up mastery of them. Tony Stark's gradual construction of the Mark-2 Iron Man suit in the first movie was a blast to watch, and Doctor Strange could have followed a similar path.

I did really like the way the Ancient One's death plays out. The questions about her allegiances was set up fairly well, and the serenity around the death scene was a welcome change. Sure, one could say that it was just like Ugue's death in Kung-Fu Panda, but whatever. It was still a nice change from the bloody deaths that most mentors suffer in action movies, without sacrificing the impact that it has on the protagonist.

Strange's defeat of Dormammu was a real saving grace for me. Until then, the plot was following overly familiar lines. Massively powerful creature tries to dominate/destroy the planet. Things are exploding. People are dying. We've seen that plenty of times in other MCU movies. But then Strange gets clever. The use of the forbidden technique of time manipulation to stick Dormammu in a loop was great. And Strange sacrificing himself into the loop, to be killed over and over, is a unique act of heroism. It provided an entertaining series of scenes, as well as a powerful development of the character.

So like nearly everything about the movie, the details were both hit and miss with me, with the hits being a bit stronger than the misses. I like the foundation set up in this movie, and I think the character can become a vehicle for some really creative and wonderful tales. I hope that the writers who handle Strange going forward can tap into the immense potential he has.