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Non-Review Review: Doctor Strange

Some Marvel films succeed by pushing against the house style to provide a clear and unique artistic sensibility, like Iron Man III and Guardians of the Galaxy, films that are undeniably informed by the stylistic sensibilities of their directors as much (if not more than) the concerns of the shared universe. Those films are never distinctive enough to compare to the work done by Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan, but they stand out from the rest of the Marvel production slate for their willingness to tell a different story in a different style.

Some Marvel films suffer from their adherence to the production company’s house style. Just about anything interesting was smothered out of Thor: The Dark World, which frequently seemed to have been written and edited by a computer algorithm designed to amplify the well-received elements of the first film and graft them on to a familiar structure. Even some of the relatively strong films on the slate are not immune, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War unable to follow their bolder ideas to conclusion.

It's a kind of magic...

It’s a kind of magic…

However, there are also films that succeed through their understanding of the studio’s house style and sensibilities, working firmly within the structures and boundaries of what might be termed “the Marvel Cinematic Method.” These films do not just acknowledge the expectations imposed upon these blockbusters, they play towards them. In doing so, they embrace the stability and consistency that such a tried-and-tested approach affords, affording the production team the opportunity to craft enjoyable adventures starring likable actors doing fun things.

The original Thor is perhaps the best example of this approach. Often underrated and overlooked in assessments of Marvel’s cinematic output, Thor ranks among the very best of the company’s feature film slate by virtue of its willingness to embrace the stock superhero story at the heart of the script and focus upon making its cast likeable and its plot moving. There is a solid argument to be made that Thor is the purest solo superhero movie produced in quite some time, dating back to Richard Donner’s Superman. No irony or deconstruction in sight. Just simplicity.

Hair today...

Hair today…

Doctor Strange wisely opts for a similar approach. There are very few surprises to be found in the plotting and structuring of the film. The movie unfolds almost exactly as the audience expects. All the pieces are there, and they are assembled with the reliability of the very expensive watch that the title character chooses to carry around as a memento. The arrogant lead character humbled by tragedy. The nihilistic opponent who embraces the end of all things. The romantic co-lead. The stoic supporting character immune to our hero’s charm. The fallen mentor.

Doctor Strange is not particularly interested in subverting or twisting these stock elements. Instead, it focuses on honing them to a fine point, executing them with the help of a spectacular cast and a knowing grin. More than that, the relative simplicity of the plot framework allows director Scott Derrickson to hang some really impressive choreography and set pieces. The Marvel films have been (fairly) criticised for a certain textural “sameness”, and so the visual and aural stylings of Doctor Strange come as a breath of fresh air.

Strange fascination.

Strange fascination.

There is perhaps something to be said for the second half of 2016 as a sort of superhero reconstruction. After all, the first half (and more) of the year seemed to imagine a pop culture landscape without heroes, where costumed supermen pounded each other for nothing more than the entertainment of the masses. Deadpool was the most straightforward of these films, focusing on a hired killer who didn’t want to join a superhero team. Batman fought Superman. Captain America fought Iron Man. Daredevil fought the Punisher.

Perhaps this reflects a deeper anxiety, an apocalyptic impulse manifesting itself through contemporary blockbusters. After all, it does not take too much imagination to conceive of a world in which people seem on the verge of a violent outburst at any given moment, when those sworn to protect find themselves stoking fire and chaos. Looking at the emergence of a radical political right, the frequent clashes between minorities and law enforcement over institutional racism, the disintegration of respect and decency in political discourse, it makes sense that our heroes are gone.

"Don't worry. I've had worse. I worked on Star Trek Into Darkness."

“Don’t worry. I’ve had worse. I worked on Star Trek Into Darkness.”

However, the past month has seen a more traditional portrayal of superheroism. Luke Cage was very well-received, but the strongest criticisms attacked it for being too conservative in terms of narrative and politics. Luke Cage was a show that had no interest in demolishing corrupt power structures, but was more interesting in celebrating black culture and identity. More than that, the television show revelled in all the tropes and conventions of superhero storytelling in a way far beyond Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

Doctor Strange is very much a part of that. It is a film that seems genuinely excited at the prospect of playing with the more ridiculous and outlandish superhero story elements. Indeed, one of the film’s many joyous action sequences involves the title character coming into contact with his iconic “cloak of levitation.” It is a red cape that allows him to fly, one of the most iconic pieces of superhero costuming. It is something that the character shares with Thor… and Superman. Doctor Strange turns the cape into a character in its own right.

Punched him right in the soul.

Punched him right in the soul.

Director Scott Derrickson loves the cape, and justifiably so. The cape is genuinely amazing, even as a prop. Some of the movie’s most memorable shots centre around the cape, including that shot from the trailer of Stephen Strange ascending the steps to his Sanctum Sanctorum and a moment in which the character discovers that he can fly. However, the cape also takes on a life of its own. The moment that Strange puts the cape on, he becomes a much more effective superhero. The film makes it unambiguously clear that a lot of this is down to the cape itself.

In many ways, the strength of Marvel has always been in its ability to construct pleasant pop pastiche, characters and stories that speak to particular moments and particular aspects of American life. The Fantastic Four are perhaps the best example, the perfect superheroes for the New Frontier who have struggled for relevance since. There are plenty of other examples. Iron Man speaking to post-Vietnam cynicism, Wolverine emerging as westerns grew more cynical, Frank Miller speaking to Reagan’s America. Elements that feel iconic, woven into the cultural fabric.

Being Sorceror Supreme for a spell.

Being Sorceror Supreme for a spell.

Much like Thor before it, Doctor Strange feels like a pointedly archetypal film constructed from ideas drifting through the cultural memory. The movie feels very familiar, and not just in terms of structure. Doctor Strange is very much a Marvel story through and through. Stephen Strange is very much defined in terms similar to Tony Stark, but that is just the beginning of it. More than that, the character’s origin and back story run the risk of rendering Iron Fist somewhat redundant long before it airs. But there’s a broader recognisability to all this.

There is an element of House to the characterisation, a tall British actor affecting an American accent to play a jerkish doctor uninterested in people. There are shades of Doctor Who in the movie’s recurring fascination with time. There are little bits of Inception in its manipulation of space. Doctor Strange certainly doesn’t do any of this better than any of its obvious inspirations, but it blends them together in a way that feels intriguing and exciting of itself. It feels like a film that captures the 2010s pop zeitgeist in broad strokes, which is part of the charm.

Into the fold.

Into the fold.

To be fair, this somewhat undersells the film. Doctor Strange features a decidedly over-qualified cast for what is effectively a standard-issue origin story. Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the title character. Even if his casting does not stand out as a highpoint for either Marvel or himself, it is a testament to the quality of casting that both have enjoyed over the years. However, Cumberbatch is supported by an incredibly deep bench of talent who are largely stuck in very familiar and largely thankless roles.

It is hard to argue that any of these actors singlehandedly steal the show, providing performances that are particularly memorable in terms of blockbuster cinema or their own filmographies. However, there is a cumulative effort, with each member of the cast shouldering a little extra weight to elevate the material a little further. Doctor Strange may not have any breakout performers, but it has a remarkable ensemble. It is an incredibly stacked cast, even if the roles in question are not particularly meaty.

Warped speed ahead.

Warped speed ahead.

Consider Mads Mikkelsen in the role of Kaecilius. Kaecilius is very much a stock Marvel film bad guy. He is an omnicidal maniac, which seems to be a disappointingly common affliction for supervillains in this universe. Like Thanos or Malekith or Ultron or Ronan, Kaecilius really just wants to destroy the world for vaguely defined philosophical reasons. There is nothing particularly engaging or exciting about what the evil sorceror wants, or how he seeks to accomplish it. On paper, Kaecilius is a pretty bland baddie.

And yet, Mikkelsen manages to let just enough personality seep through into his performance that it works. Kaecilius feels more defined than Thanos or Malekith or Ronan, and less like a stock Joss Whedon character than Ultron. The character never jumps off the screen, but instead bleeds into the surround. It is the little moments, from the way that Mikkelsen tilts his head towards his opponents as if some invisible clockwork is ticking through to the sarcasm that bleeds through into his distinctive accent.

Backpacking a punch.

Backpacking a punch.

Indeed, one of the character’s strongest little moments feels like it was lifted from one of Bryan Fuller’s scripts for Hannibal, so precisely tailored is it to the actor and his delivery. Encountering Steven Strange for the first time, he engages in a comic book “who’s on first?” routine. “Mister…?” he inquires. “Doctor, actually,” Strange responds. “Mister Doctor,” Kaecilius repeats, to process. “It’s Strange,” the master of mysticism insists. Mikkelsen allows himself a beat. “Who am I to judge?” he muses, with the casual aloofness that made his Hannibal Lecter so effective.

It is an exchange that does not work on the page, but pops in the performance. It is not enough to make Kaecilius seem particularly nuanced or complicated, although at least Doctor Strange seems to be aware of his limitations. However, it feels like a much more effective (and mindful) use of a very talented performer than the work of Christopher Eccleston in The Dark World. There are other little moments like that, which play to the strengths of particular performers within an expansive ensemble.

Streets ahead.

Streets ahead.

Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg are given precious little to do in small supporting roles as Stephen Strange’s ex-girlfriend work colleague and professional rival respectively, but both bring an attention to detail that elevates otherwise forgettable roles. Benedict Wong is charming in a role that feels somewhat redundant. Chiwetel Ejiofor appears in the role of a close friend which exists primarily to pay off in a sequel, but to which he still brings a sense of weight and class. Even Benjamin Bratt stops by the scene for a film to deliver some exposition. It is a stacked cast.

Indeed, the ensemble’s most valuable player is arguably Tilda Swinton, controversially cast in the role of “the Ancient One.” On paper, the Ancient One is really a collection of stock clichés and dramatic beats, a vehicle for exposition who serves to indoctrinate Strange into the world of mysticism. However, Swinton is very effective in the role, imbuing the character with a sense of playfulness and ambiguity that compliment the character’s narrative role quite perfectly.

"Didn't you hear the exposition? I'm Celtic. So this can't possibly be a appropriation, right?"

“Didn’t you hear the exposition? I’m Celtic. So this can’t possibly be appropriation, right?”

Swinton in many ways serves as the crux of one of the bigger issues with the film, an awkward sense of Orientalism. Doctor Strange pushes out the boundaries of the Marvel universe in many ways, but it also works geographically. The title character travels to the Far East in serve of mystical powers that might heal the damaged nerves in his hands, an origin story lifted directly from the sixties comics. Unfortunately, that cultural appropriation has not aged well. Indeed, Doctor Strange feels a little bit like a test balloon for the issues that will face Iron Fist.

In late 2016, it is easy to take superhero cinema for granted. Thanks to advances in computer-generated imagery, shots and set pieces that would have been impossible even a decade earlier are now the norm. However, there is something to be said for the joy of seeing these classic comic book concepts brought to life in a manner that genuinely adores (and embraces) the more fanciful imagery and concepts of the comic books. One of the joys of Thor was in seeing Jack Kirby’s vision of Asgard brought to life.

Grounded.

Grounded.

Stephen Strange is something of a fringe character within the Marvel universe. He is perhaps notable as the second most important creation of comic book artist Steve Ditko, famed as the co-creator of the Amazing Spider-Man. (Of course, it could be argued that Ditko deserves some credit for his influence on the characters in Watchmen, which would bump Strange to third place.) Ditko is one of the most brilliant artists to work in the medium of comic books. After all, it is telling that Spider-Man has so many iconic and recognisable antagonists and supporting characters.

Doctor Strange really embraces the visual aesthetic that Ditko established for the character. His cape is bright read, his goatee is finely shaven, his suit is blue. As Stephen takes a trip through the “multiverse”, he encounters weird distortions and pockets that look very much like psychedelic kaleidoscopic sixties artwork brought to life. There are universes that seem to be made of cancer, laid out like cell structures so as to evokes that sixties fascination with science. Doctor Strange takes great pleasure in its superhero trappings, and it is almost infectious.

Broken mirror.

Broken mirror.

One of the most interesting aspects of Marvel’s cinematic output has been watching the company repurpose familiar comic book storytelling devices for a different medium. Marvel’s films have embraced ideas like crossovers and long-form (potentially endless) storytelling, fashioning them into a new mode of blockbuster storytelling. The Avengers was breathtaking in its audacity, offering audiences something that had never been done before. There is something to be said for the company’s willingness to port over concepts from the source material for new audiences.

This is very much a hallmark of how the studio approaches properties that might otherwise seem fringe, often taking the opportunity to attach them to bigger concepts to see how those concepts might play out in live action. Ant Man is perhaps the most notable example, introducing both the concept of legacy characters into the on-screen universe and an odd attempt at the big-screen equivalent of a sales-boosting cameo. Even within the familiar format, there is room for minor improvisation and relative innovation.

Adopting the hands-on approach.

Adopting the hands-on approach.

Doctor Strange does something similar. It is a conventional superhero origin story populated by broadly drawn archetypes, executed with considerable skill and charm by all involved. However, it uses that template to slip in concepts like the “multiverse”, the familiar science-fiction idea of infinite alternate universes that is familiar to any comic book reader. The “multiverse” suggests an infinite array of alternate universes, while also making possible any number of crazy comic book story concepts down the line. It also allows for some very impressive set pieces.

Indeed, while a lot of the pleasure in Doctor Strange lies in the very skilled execution of a very familiar template, the film takes advantage of its uncomplicated and uncluttered narrative so as to be more adventurous with its action sequences and imagery. Doctor Strange is a film fascinated with the ideas of time and space, of bizarre geometries and repeating moments. The world bends and distorts, time flows backwards and slowly. Everything folds and collapses, or expands and explodes.

That healthy glow.

That healthy glow.

This feels very much like a mission statement for the film. Marvel has turned itself into a cinematic powerhouse, but the studio recognises that it cannot simply produce wave after wave of generic superhero films. There needs to be some measure of distinction and speciation; Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera, while The Winter Soldier is a political thriller. Indeed, Doctor Strange even explicitly acknowledges this. At one point, a supporting character even outlines how their own brief differs from that of the Avengers.

In some ways, this is reflected in the practical effects at work. Surfaces seem to move. Floors are stretched and refracted. In short, Doctor Strange is a film very much invested in the idea that there is always more. There is more to the world than Stephen Strange perceives, because there truly is magic in the universe. There is more room for other types of superhero stories, because the world is a vast and infinite place. These ideas are given literal form in the buildings and roadways that seem to stretch onwards towards eternity. It is a surprisingly optimistic idea.

Dude, right in my third eye!

Dude, right in my third eye!

This is all breathtaking, and a credit to Scott Derrickson. There are points at which the physics and geography of Doctor Strange resemble the workings of an MC Eischer painting, as the characters navigate the sprawl. It something new and exciting, something which works largely because it can be comfortably grafted into a very simple and straightforward narrative. Indeed, there is a sense that the film does not exploit these ideas as well as it might, particularly once it starts playing with time towards the climax of the film.

(Time feels like an under-developed thread running through the film. Repeatedly, Doctor Strange hints at the idea that its central character might be tempted to use his power to manipulate time so as to undo his own past mistakes, which seems to set a clear line towards the climax that hinges upon a similar idea that may have been inspired by input from Dan Harmon. There is a very clear connection to be drawn between these two thematic concepts, but Doctor Strange never quite gets there. As a result, the climax never feels as earned as it might otherwise.)

"I think I'll feed my cats some milkeror in a sorceror."

“I think I’ll feed my cats some milkerer in a sorcerer.”

There is also something to be said for the relish with which Doctor Strange embraces the goofiness of its premise, accepting the sixties new age mumbo-jumbo with a minimum of fuss. One of the more frustrating aspects of Thor was its awkward insistence upon couching its sillier ideas in generic science fiction terms. The Asgardians were not gods or stories, or anything as abstract or interesting. Odin and his people were portrayed as “sufficiently advanced aliens”, the least ambitious and exciting reading of the source material.

In contrast, Doctor Strange latches on to the weirdness of its occult ideas. There are a few lines of exposition that try to frame magic in scientific terms, with the Ancient One arguing that magic is the “source code of the universe” and that these sorcerers are just “programming.” However, it feels more like a clumsy metaphor than an attempt explain the movie’s weirdness away in rational term. Doctor Strange still finds time to imagine geometric impossibilities and universe where time does no exist, never questioning them or insisting upon explanation.

East of Eden.

East of Eden.

Director Scott Derrickson is best known for his work on some of the decade’s best received and most influential horror films. It is too much to suggest that he puts a strong stamp of Doctor Strange in the same way that James Gunn left his mark on Guardians of the Galaxy or that Shane Black is all over Iron Man 3. However, his own interests shine through in a number of small ways. One particularly nice little touch comes in the fact that Kaecilius appear to have literally sealed their third eyes. It is never mentioned in dialogue, but it is a very clever idea.

While Derrickson does not get to bring his horror movie sensibilities to the Marvel universe in any tangible way, his direction has a very clean and logical flow to it, which works rather well when playing with something as elastic as magic. Doctor Strange is particularly good at visually explaining to the audience what a magic object does, and then quickly finding an application for that particular magic object during an action set piece. There is an endearing clarity to the way in which Doctor Strange keeps its audience au fait with the mechanics of its action beats.

"That's Doctor Strange, thank you. I didn't spend an ambiguous amount of time at mystical medical school to be called Mister."

“That’s Doctor Strange, thank you. I didn’t spend an ambiguous amount of time at mystical medical school to be called Mister.”

Doctor Strange is very much a triumph of the house style, perhaps the year’s purest and most unadulterated superhero movie. It stands among the strongest of the company’s solo output, if only because of its willingness to embrace the format and focus its energy within that rather than pretending (and failing) to move beyond it.

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15 Responses

  1. “In contrast, Doctor Strange latches on to the weirdness of its occult ideas.”

    Would you say it works because of it’s STRANGE ideas?

  2. A lot of the imagery from the trailers reminded me of Inception, the only Christopher Nolan film that I have liked. Are the visual effects and the film as good as Inception?
    Also, have you heard of the new history of Star Trek book that has been released? It is called The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek.

    • The graphics aren’t quite as good as Inception. But then I’m not sure they’re meant to be. They have more of a 2D quality to them, like a kaleidoscope, which is in keeping with the character’s sixties psychedelic roots.

      I have heard of that book. Hoping to get my hands on it, soon-ish.

  3. All this huge love affair with comic book adaptations leaves me in the dust. Believe it or not, I’ve read maybe two comic books in my life, ever.

    • Well, each’s own.

      I mean, they’re no better or worse a source of blockbuster material than anything else, and I’d argue they have a certain mythic resonance to them. (I’d also argue that stuff like the Burton/Nolan Batmen are genuinely great films in their own rights, although as much down to the vision of their directors as anything to do with their source material.)

      • I don’t like Tim Burton (with exception to Ed Wood), or really Chris Nolan either to be fair. I do like the first two Nolah Batman films though.

        I tend to dislike most blockbuster material…

  4. Great review Darren (though I’m surprised you didn’t point to the Flash, Supergirl, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow as part of your reconstructing superheroes – hard as it is to seem not every capewearer is owned by Marvel. 😉

    I liked the movie a lot, particularly as you mentioned the unashamed embrace of magic which honestly feels like a breath of fresh air in this technophile era. ‘Doctor Strange’ isn’t anti-technology or anti-science (the villain is an evil wizard after all) but it is fascinating to see a superhero film that leans towards fantasy. I genuinely didn’t think Marvel had it in them; except for maybe the first ‘Thor’ film the studio seemed downright embarassed at anything that wasn’t pseudo-scientific.

    You are spot on about the cast being great too. Cumberbatch is always entertaining and while Rachel McAdams will always be Regina George to me she really made a lot out of a thankless role.

  5. I saw the movie yesterday, so my first impression of the movie is still strong. For me it was a generic superhero movie with a hero not so deeply ingraved in the public consciousness, which allowed for some slight variations on the formula of Marvel movies. It had great imagenery, I really enjoyed the first entry to the other dimensions. It had a great cast. But what really left me thinking was the missing logic of the world presented there. How am I to be excited by spectacularly looking fights, when it is not clear what effect an action has on the characters? Enemies die when it is there time to die in the script, heroes survive even more dangerous actions, because they are the heroes. Even stabbing of the heart leaves Dr. Strange a little inconvenient for one scene after which he reenters a battle. What about the fighting in the hospital? They are fighting through persons and stuff, but only some smaller items are moved by it, when it brings dramatic effect.
    I am on board to say this movie represents the generic formula of Marvel, but I am not celebrating it. Maybe I grew tired of all the similar looking and similarly structured films.
    But: great review again, Darren. Thank you and keep up the good work.

    • A late reply to your post, but I felt very much the same way about it. The lack of internal logic in the world and their magic kept a lot of the action from really feeling like it mattered to me. But I realize that I’ve been spoiled as a fantasy reader/viewer by many series that had more than 2 hours to spend in developing their worlds.

      My other strong sense was that Cumberbatch did a great job in the role, but nobody else got to do much interesting.

      • That’s a fair point. But I think there’s a difference between the world building that Doctor Strange does and something more rule-based like say Harry Potter. It’s perhaps akin to the differences between Star Wars and Star Trek. I don’t think one is inherently better than the other (although, aesthetically, I prefer my magic with less rules and my science with more) but I do think there is a difference.

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