Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Editor's note: This is another "30 Minutes" on that ended up taking sixty, though in this case it was because the writer kept pausing to consult election reports, something he started this piece to avoid.
"Doctor Strange" suffers from the usual flaws that plague origin stories, Marvel ones especially. You know pretty much every beat that has to happen, and of course they all happen, in more or less the order that you expected. And its core story, created in 1963 by Steve Ditko, is embarrassingly retrograde: arrogant but brilliant white American man travels to the cornball-mystic East, quickly masters skills that his teachers spent years absorbing, then uses them to save the world. (The hero's original mentor, the Ancient One, was originally described as being from a "hidden land high in the Himalayas," but here she's been turned into an ancient Celt played by Tilda Swinton, a solution to one problem, ethnic stereotyping, that inadvertently creates another, cultural whitewashing.)
Still, this big screen adaptation by director Scott Derrickson (who co-wrote the script with John Spaights and C. Robert Cargill) is so consistently entertaining, and demonstrates such thorough mastery of pacing, special effects and tone, that it very nearly drowns objections beneath waves of deadpan humor and glorious psychedelic imagery. It helps that Derrickson takes the source material seriously but not too seriously. There's none of the pouty ponderousness that afflicts many live-action superhero films. For every miracle, there's a joke, often a marvelously dry one, as when the hero, maimed surgeon turned sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) petulantly demands that his nemesis, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), not address him as "Mister Doctor." "It's...Strange," he says, wincing slightly at his own pretentiousness. Kaecilius ponders that second word and then says, "Maybe. Who am I to judge?"
The movie never forgets to be clever as well as exciting; you can almost envision the filmmakers combing every page of the script and asking, "This spot here, it's only three seconds long or so, but is there some way we can work a gag into it, or some sort of grace note that people won't expect?" The result is a nearly Spielbergian series of cinematic magic tricks that invite applause not because they're colorful and immense (though most of them are) but because they're presented in a self-deprecating way—the cinematic equivalent of an illusionist sawing his lovely assistant in half, putting her back together, then calling it a trial separation. Strange's cape, the most charismatic inorganic object since the magic carpet in Disney's "Aladdin," dotes on him the way Alfred doted on Bruce Wayne, and shows equally little inclination to indulge the master's vanity and self-seriousness. At the end, Strange celebrates his victory over the forces of evil by creasing the tips of the cape's collar straight up, and one of the lapel points brushes his face like a kitten demanding to be petted. The moment is a metaphor for Derrick's filmmaking personality, which cuts against the modern superhero film's tendency toward bombast. Strange's out-of-body fight with an enemy's spirit slams both of them into a snack machine, releasing an extra snack mere moments after Strange's old colleague (Michael Stuhlbarg) has retrieved the one he just paid for. Of course he goes back and reaches through the slot to retrieve it. Wouldn't you?
I don't want to oversell this movie. The first half-hour is mercifully brief—dig how we never see the event Strange is driving towards; the movie tosses his car off a bridge the first chance it gets. But the brevity has creative drawbacks. Cumberbatch uses his flat face and pained squint to make us feel the psychic weight of the loss Strange suffers after his surgeon's hands are crushed—he's physically convincing even when his American accent falters—and Derrickson keeps the character's gnarled, puffy hands in frame whenever possible, to remind us of the suffering that Strange managed by redirecting his perfectionism and ambition elsewhere. The arc of Strange's rehabilitation illustrates the Ancient One's admonition that you can never really beat your demons, only learn to live above their level. But this aspect of the movie is still more sketched-in than truly developed. Strange's affection for and dependence upon his ex-girlfriend, surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is undercooked as well—though to be fair, as soon as Strange goes East and becomes a different person who occasionally inhabits different planes, they don't have much to talk about anymore. When Strange sees her again, he literally drops into her life, gushing blood this time, and the remainder of their reunion plays out like something out of a ghost story.
Ditto Strange learning how to be a sorcerer—he seems almost as quick a study as "The Matrix" hero Neo, who had a jack in the back of his neck and could download new skills instantly. And it's up to Swinton and Mikkelsen to put across the idea of the Ancient One and Kaecilius as philosophical as well as physical combatants—representatives of opposing world views, each accusing the other of being weak, corrupt, and a false prophet. None of that comes through via the script as strongly as it should have. As a comics-loving friend of mine pointed out, the film's basic plot—which is about a group of jocular, energy-beam spewing heroes trying to stop the all-powerful Dormammu of the Dark Dimension from entering our world by way of a loyal henchman—is basically "Ghostbusters" with spell-casting in place of proton packs.
None of this registers, though, once the magic battles start to rage. I've often griped that the characterizations and dialogue in Marvel films are consistently more interesting than their action sequences, which tend to rely too much on cut-cut-cut action, shaky-camerawork and more tricks from the "coverage" school of filmmaking that dominates series television. Not so here. "Doctor Strange" is the first Marvel film that comes fully alive in its action scenes.
A lot of this is due to the powers displayed by the combatants: they aren't just finding clever but ultimately repetitious ways to punch and zap and nuke each other, they're folding space, twisting buildings and furniture, opening doors and windows where there shouldn't be any; they're shuffling through possible outcomes the way you or I might flip through Netflix menus or scroll through song titles on iTunes; they're flying not just through space but through dimensions that overlap or parallel the one that we non-sorcerers inhabit. But it's also the quality of the filmmaking. This action is not covered, it is directed. It has an aesthetic, and it's not the Marvel same-old.
Although the editing (by Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco) is fairly rapid, perhaps too rapid in some of the hand-to-hand moments, it's rarely incomprehensible, and whenever the movie pulls back to show Strange, Kaecilius, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Ancient One and company chasing each other across M.C. Escher-style interiors and city-scapes, running and leaping and climbing through spaces that have splintered, folded, or morphed into a prismatic collage of surfaces and voids, the film becomes a dazzling psychedelic spectacle. The final act of "2001" is referenced repeatedly throughout, as are the hyperspace jumps in the "Star Wars" films, the collapsing and emerging buildings in "Inception," the wormholes in "Contact" and the "bullet time" shots in the "Matrix" trilogy; and yet the movie gathers up all these things you've seen elsewhere and pieces them together with a watchmaker's meticulousness, creating something that feels new and alive. This might be the first big-budget fantasy film I've seen since the original "The Matrix" that gave me an out-of-body experience akin to a brilliantly constructed amusement park ride. It's a sound and light show with a human heart and a sense of humor, a combination rarely seen on screens today.
I should also confess that Mikkelsen's performance was far and away my favorite here. The character has drawn some flak for being another underwhelming Marvel bad guy, but I saw him more as a glorified henchman doing the bidding of an amorphous demon-face that remains unseen until the movie's climax; as such, he's almost exactly what he should be, and often much more. As he demonstrated repeatedly in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn and in three seasons of Bryan Fuller's TV series "Hannibal," Mikkelsen is a master at being in on the joke while still delivering every line with imagination and feeling. He never condescends to his characters or to the audience, yet he's often knowing and wry, even arch, a mix of performance traits that's often hard to combine with any success. The peak of his performance is the scene where Strange trusses him up in some kind of medieval bondage suit, and he delivers a passionate monologue about his master's glorious integrity, the Ancient One's hypocrisy, and the fate of the universe, tears spilling over his circa 1970 David Bowie pansexual guyliner. He's majestic: Pagliacci and Dr. Frank N. Furter in the body of a metrosexual Dane.
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