April 07, 2017
Back in 2008, Robert Downey Jr.’s 'Tony Stark' put on a metal suit to fight terrorists. In the process, he became Iron Man, and kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Many of you might say there were Marvel movies before Iron Man. But in my opinion, that movie was where it all began.
Now, several (nearly) world ending disasters, a (nearly) universe ending one, the formation and break-up of the Avengers, Civil War and 13 movies later, we are introduced to another Marvel character. One comic fans had wanted to see of the big screen for a very long time.
Benedict Cumberbatch seems to be making his presence felt in everything these days. Hearing the news that he was cast as Doctor Strange was greeted with lots of joy from fans – myself included. As the titular character, he plays a cocky, arrogant narcissist – sound familiar to you?
Strange’s conflict isn’t with family (like Thor with Loki) or something he created (like Tony Stark and Ultron) or a rival with a vendetta (like Ant-Man with Yellowjacket). Strange, in a sense, is more like the Hulk — his greatest strengths are his biggest weaknesses, and to become a superhero, he loses the singular thing that defines him: his medical career.
So Strange sets out (after a car accident mangles his hands), like a lot of Marvel heroes, to find himself. His journey takes him to Kathmandu, where he hopes to heal himself and become a surgeon again. Cumberbatch’s Strange is sardonic, irreverent and everything we could hope for as the character - even when he’s delivering shop-worn lines like "This is the part when you leave," to the love of his life, Christine Palmer (McAdams). Yet that’s not all that is repetitive or under-utilised in this movie.
There are many great actors that colour the film's margins, but “Doctor Strange” doesn’t make the best use of them. Rachel McAdams plays one of the most poorly written superhero love interests I think I’ve ever seen. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s 'Mordo' and Benedict Wong’s 'Wong' spend most of their time helping the audience understand concepts like astral projection, relics, all the mumbo-jumbo surrounding "sanctums" — magical security systems for planet Earth that are overseen by the Ancient One. Even Mikkelsen, a brilliant and subversive actor capable of showcasing rattling performances (see: NBC’s Hannibal, among others), does not have much screen space.
As for the Ancient One, a figure in the comics featured as not only conspicuously old, but also bearded, male and Asian. Tilda Swinton, of course, is none of these things. But with all the controversies aside, Swinton with her trademark oddity and cutting humour gives one of the highlight performances of the movie. In many ways, Swinton’s presence seems to be from another film entirely—one that would truly embrace the weirdness of the premise beyond some eccentric visual effects.
Not to say that the effects are not amazing. Because they are. From costume design to CGI to its framing, “Doctor Strange” is a visual feast. In the 'Mirror Dimension', in which the magic of the characters don’t affect people in the real world, we see buildings break apart, fold into each other, reform in ways reminiscent of “Inception”. However, after several such scenes and no knowledge of how any of it actually works, it gets a bit dull. In the end, the beauty and visual effects of “Doctor Strange” are frustratingly weightless.
My biggest problem with the movie however, is how quickly Strange masters magic. While he struggles briefly at first, he’s soon stealing sacred books out and even goes as far as bending time, secretly reading from forbidden texts and wielding powerful magical objects. Strange plays by his own rules, growing far beyond the skills of those around him. When Ejiofor’s 'Mordo' remarks that Strange seems destined for this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Of course he was.
In effect, Strange is proven right. Who cares about rules and breaking the laws of nature when you’re actually right, and in turn you save the world? Strange never grows much as a character since he proves to be right about far too much, justifying his ego and rank arrogance. Cumberbatch is having considerable fun with the role (although he brings nothing unexpected) but he can’t distract from how nothing in Strange’s story feels earned. You also can’t ignore that “Doctor Strange” is essentially the story of a white man who travels to an “exotic” land, whose culture and people he doesn’t respect. Yet somehow he just happens to realize he’s a natural at magic and gets good enough to beat practitioners who have been doing this for years.
Expectations are always sky high for any Marvel movie. And despite all the faults I found with it, it doesn’t come anywhere near the train-wrecks that were “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad”.
“Doctor Strange” is a charming film, spry, brimming with great details, striking imagery, a brilliant if under-utilised cast and much joy. It pushes the MCU into a fascinating world full of magic and villains that exists beyond our understanding of time and reality – hopefully next time, they’ll do something worthwhile when they get there.