One foot in front of the other. Today I decided to try that traditional refuge of modern Americans in times of trouble (popular since the Great Depression): a couple of hours in a darkened cinema, watching a big, colorful blockbuster Hollywood movie. Luckily for me, I picked a good ‘un in Doctor Strange (the latest outing in the vast and lumbering Marvel Cinematic Universe), and was thoroughly distracted for the full hour and 55 minutes of its running time, plus another 15 minutes or so for some pretty good previews and the excellent post credits scenes.
(And yes, I did say “post credits scenes” in plural. Most Marvel movies have at least one, and this one has two and they are important and interesting. A wise person stays in his or her seat until the screen goes to white. Several people in our matinee showing were not wise. Do not follow their example.)
My capsule review, spoiler free: This is a very trippy movie, extremely beautiful to watch, reasonably well written and plotted, with quite a good performance by a popular star in the title role and some good supporting performances by good supporting actors. Highly recommended, mostly because it is so very beautiful. Seriously. Gorgeous flick.
Below, please find the spoilery bits.
The Doctor Strange of 2016 couldn’t have been made before right now: the astral battles, the folding space effects executed through mirroring and tiling, and the truly epic Dark Dimension all were only possible at current levels of CGI. This is the kind of movie that CGI was made for, because it could only be made with CGI. Uncanny valley? This flick leads you through the uncanny valley right into the seething heart of the Kirby Kosmos via the Mirror Dimension and not one but two fantasy Asian cities. (These are fantasy Katmandu and fantasy Hong Kong, if you’re scoring at home– both great for appealing to the crucial overseas audiences.) There’s also a pretty spectacular version of Dr. Strange’s familar Greenwich Village townhouse transformed into a pocket museum, and a great mystic library complete with a grumpy replacement librarian, each with appropriate effects details.
This is all neatly contrasted with the fancy apartment/down to earth hospital real world settings of the good Doctor’s back story, which are very effectively revisited several times as the story develops. In fact the plot is fairly clever all the way around, with lots of little bits of foreshadowing, echoes and loops, including the stubborn time loop that Strange uses to defeat the Big Bad. This is a story that is at least in part about time itself, which gives it a bit of extra mystery and gravitas.
The title role in Doctor Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the British actor who has spent the last five years or so being the Next Big Thing. By this time he is pretty much a known quantity and you can decide for yourself how much of his impact depends on him being a bit of surprise. There is no question that he is a very able actor, with a serious stage presence that extends onto the screen. His looks, of course, are highly distinctive, with serious debate continuing over whether he is handsome or not. (He is an orchid, not a rose.) Regardless, he looks a lot like Dr. Strange in all the varied costumes and makeups of his hero’s journey and he changes effectively as his character moves from brilliant-doctor-as-entitled-jerk to troubled wanderer to skeptical student to potential Sorcerer Supreme. (I will admit to being somewhat less enchanted by Mr. Cumberbatch’s rather broad American accent. The character might have been equally well served by something more “Mid Atlantic”.)
I know the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One was highly controversial and many people considered it an example of whitewashing. I don’t know enough about the canon material to have a strong opinion, but considering her performance purely in context of the movie as made, I thought it was highly satisfactory. Her Ancient One is tragic, powerful, mystical, mean, morally ambiguous, and oddly funny, quite interesting and not at all like the stereotyped Tibetan Master we have seen so many times. And her already famous line before she releases the pocket of slow time that is keeping her alive (” And here I am, stretching one moment out into a thousand … just so I can watch the snow.”) reads as corny but is much better on the screen.
In supporting performances, Rachel McAdams was more than the spunky love interest in the role of the spunky love interest, Chiwetel Ejiofor puts in his usual excellent turn as another mystic master in the Ancient One’s stable, Mads Mikkelson makes a good heavy, Benedict Wong is the grumpy librarian who is seriously good in a fight, and Benjamin Bratt is memorable in two very brief appearances as Pangborn, an independent minded man who rises above his duty as a plot point.
But mostly this movie is about magic made manifest through CGI and some people playing parts inside it– if you like the kind thing, it’s the kind of thing you like.
One of my big questions going into this film was how the filmmakers were going to make sense of Dr. Strange’s classic costume. This costume, consisting of dark blue tights and blouse fit for a low rent Shakespeare production, a large and cheesy medallion amulet, a crimson cape with a huge high collar and long yellow gloves with spots on the back of the cuffs. (Hey, it was the 60s.) This costume looks great on the page when combined with the psychedelic mindscapes of Ditko and Kirby, but every other depiction of it I’ve ever seen has been laughable in the extreme.
This film does a good job dealing with this by changing the blue core garments into an Asian influenced sort-of-Tibetan tunic and trousers and (get this!) turning the cape into a character. The Cape of Levitation is a cape with personality– slapping the Doctor’s enemies in the face, dragging its wearer in the direction it wants him to go, swirling dramatically and snapping its collar at the least provocation. This is best superhero cape ever, and it is thoroughly forgiven. The amulet, on the other hand, turns out to work great on the screen from the first moment. (The yellow gloves make a brief appearance in one of the credits scenes– I am not sure how that is going to work.)
I never thought the famous Kirby Krackle could possibly exist anywhere except on the comics page. I was wrong. I was so wrong and I apologize and I think the whole Dark Dimension/ Dread Dormammu sequence at the end of the film is one of the prettiest pieces of special effects I have ever seen. And that takes a lot for me to say because I love those particular comics pages so much.
Finally, it makes me slightly unhappy to be so much in favor of a movie that begins with the murder of a librarian in the defense of his collection. Do not decapitate the librarian, mystic bad guys.