Doctor Strange (2016)

Marvel Studios’ seemingly endless series of superhero movies has had several distinct lapses and gains in quality even as they’ve remained unshakeably popular. After the gregarious but hopelessly overbusy Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) capped a rather flat run, the studio’s been on something like a roll with the bouncy and visually zesty, if happily minor, Ant Man (2015), and this year’s Captain America: Civil War, a film which broke many rules of this style of filmmaking but emerged the better for it. Doctor Strange, an adaptation of one of Marvel’s most flamboyant comics as created by Steve Ditko, seemed set to continue the relative hot streak whilst also promising to expand the studios’ visual and conceptual compass. Doctor Strange involves magic and illusion and evokes systems of reality to match the series’ earlier expansions into science-fantasy with Thor (2011) and space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The creative blood is new to the franchise, too: director Scott Derrickson and his co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill are previously known for a string of successful mainstream horror films including The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Sinister (2012), and the remake of the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), whilst a third hand in the script, Jon Spaihts, had a hand on Ridley Scott’s waywardly enjoyable Alien prequel Prometheus (2012). The cast assembled is mightily impressive, signalling the new reach and prestige of the Marvel imprimatur. When you’ve got two Oscar winners bouncing around in front of the green screens, one of whom used to work with Derek Jarman, you know the centre of gravity in the moviemaking world has shifted. 

Doctor Strange’s backstory and motifs are modelled after pulp mystic adventurer tales that predate most of the familiar superhero roster, strongly reminiscent of The Shadow, Mandrake, and Chandu, and others of their ilk stemming back to exotic flotsam like the first English translation of Dabistan and the magical warfare fiction of Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley, as well as nudging the outer limits of gothic horror: protagonist Stephen Strange’s backstory is one wrong turn away from Universal horror villain status. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon who’s also a high-living, arrogant prick. He’s seen at the outset showing off his knowledge of music trivia whilst fiddling about in someone’s brain, and then patronising colleagues from the ER, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg), as he saves another man West thought was dead. Christine, his former lover, maintains some affection for this walking ego in spite of herself, and when Stephen has a dreadful car accident that shatters the bones in his hands and leaves him with irreparable nerve damage, Christine takes to caring for him. But as Strange becomes increasingly bitter and twisted in his frustration that he can no longer do the job he seemed born for, he grievously insults Christine and drives her away, before pursuing the finest thread of possibility in looking for a cure. His physiotherapist puts him in search of a former patient who has entirely recovered from a similarly permanent disability, seemingly through the power of sheer will.

When Strange finds the man, Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), he in turn sends him off to Kathmandu in search of a secretive mystic community called Kamar-Taj. Here Strange is taken aback to meet its guru, the so-called “Ancient One,” who appears to be a middle-aged western woman (Tilda Swinton). She in turn is initially wary of teaching Strange, whose faults and potentials rather too closely resemble those of her most ruinous pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rebel who has broken away and formed a sect dedicated to exposing Earth to a marauding destroyer deity, Dormammu, in the belief he offers the only kind of immortality possible as he exists in a realm where time does not exist. Strange, of course, proves an adept pupil in the sorcerous ways with his photographic memory and hunger to learn and master problems even as he has difficulty letting go of his stolid understanding of the material universe. But he finds himself being pushed right to his limits as Kaecilius and his cabal attack the Ancient One’s sanctum in the course of trying to unleash Dormammu, and soon Strange must venture out to battle him with the aid of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a vengeful exile who has become the Ancient One’s sturdy right hand, and Wong (Benedict Wong), the keeper of the Sanctum’s library. 

Marvel’s origin stories come into two varieties, you’ve probably noticed – conceited genius learns humility on the path to greatness, or ordinary guy finds untapped talents on the path to greatness. Strange obviously follows Tony Stark and Thor on the former road. The clichés certainly pile up here, but that’s not necessarily a problem if you can make them vibrate right. I dig the type of old-fashioned Weird Fiction the narrative refers back to. The reaches of Ditko’s hallucinatory multiverse offer Doctor Strange the opportunity to venture into conceptual spaces where Marvel’s aesthetic has thus far feared to tread, with their familiar sensibility being one that, depending on my mood, seem solid and dependable or bland and limited: only Ken Branagh’s colourful vistas in Thor have stretched it in any meaningful way, whilst Guardians of the Galaxy was an odd failure in this regard. Derrickson offers dimensional-morphing effects and time-space corridors and journeys to psychedelic territories in his efforts to realise the full fantastical arsenal unleashed by the powers afforded Strange and his companions. One highlight is the sequence in which the Ancient One, to give Strange a glimpse of the infinite, sends him rocketing on a journey through the astral plane, into places where cosmic monstrosities glare at him from the illimitable depths and physical distortions see his fingers sprouting hands with fingers sprouting hands. In this sequence, Doctor Strange evokes Jack Kirby’s artistic sensibility more accurately than any of the films actually made from Kirby’s material to date. There’s also a finale that aims for gobsmacking, in which time is seen to be rolling back, a shattered Hong Kong street slowly reforming and repairing itself whilst Strange, Kaecilius, and their entourages battle in normal forward-flowing time.

You may have sensed a but coming here, however, and you'd be right. Doctor Strange has a wealth of fine elements on hand, an excellent cast, and source material that offers seemingly limitless fantastical options to jump into. So why did I find it tedious so often? I spent much of the first half-hour trying to work out if the insufferable dimness of the images was the fault of the projection or the filmmakers, and I’m still not entirely sure, but too often Doctor Strange, which ought to be a visual feast, is perversely annoying to watch. A great part of this is the simple fact that Derrickson’s graphics are wearyingly derivative, particularly a lengthy action sequence in the middle of the film, in which Strange, Mordo, and the Ancient One pursue the villains through a New York skyline that has become a spiralling zone of multitudinous planes that would twist even Escher’s brain in a knot. This scene is supposed to be a showstopper, but it’s lethally dull instead, a chance for Derrickson to show how often he’s watched Inception (2010), mixed with a little Dark City (1998) for flavour, without a single truly dramatic or emotional impulse invested in it all. Likewise, that reverse-time finale sounds far more entertaining on the page than it proves on screen, because Derrickson can’t work out any way of making the interplay of two different motion flows coherent or exciting. The closeness of the pulp template for Doctor Strange as a character to The Shadow meant this film kept reminding me of Russell Mulcahy’s 1994 film featuring that hero. Although Mulcahy’s film was thinly plotted and heavy-handed, it had a brand of retro enthusiasm and class of production that grasped at the essence of comic book fun in far superior fashion to this lemon. 

Derrickson is the larger part of the problem. His The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the more egregiously clueless exercises in Hollywood’s remake culture, and Doctor Strange proves he hasn’t evolved much. This is hackwork of the most predictable and superficially spectacular kind. The script is as flat as a dry salt lake and about as appetising, offering up Strange a range of smart-aleck quips that would make Stark blush, as he teases Wong about his one-word name. The plot obeys every single dreary beat of the modern screenwriting manual, whilst throwing up nuggets of dialogue genius like “Forget what you think you know.” Mordo takes his leave of Strange’s company at the end because he’s pissed off at something, a move that might mean something if Mordo had been characterised in any way beyond being the usual kind of stern mentor-rival – you know, the kind who likes beating our hero up during training but our hero still becomes friends with because the story demands it. Mikkelsen has one brief moment to lend his character any kind of identity, and he gets one intriguing line to do so, as Kaecilius notes that the Ancient One has a way of collecting broken things and putting them to use, implying that he and Strange have both been made into implements whilst being cheated of the enlightenment they sought. But Kaecilius proves an astonishingly uninteresting villain with his coterie of anonymous thugs and his status as mere function of a plot: why an actor as good as Mikkelsen had to be inflicted with this thankless part is far more mysterious than anything Strange encounters in the Dark Dimension. Like their origin stories, Marvel’s villains come in two forms – glowering, implacable tyrants or figures who exemplify a new cliché in genre storytelling, the notion that villains should be mirrors of the heroes who take the wrong path. Either way, apart from the well-written and well-acted Loki, they’re all boring and interchangeable, and Kaecilius is the event horizon of this tendency insofar as he combines both villainous types and still manages to be superfluous.

In the past I’ve objected to people calling superhero movies video game-like, because that’s a shallow conflation – they’ve generally been closer to the old-fashioned entertainment mode of westerns than to the aesthetics of computer games, for all the special effects and adolescent pizazz. But Doctor Strange, far from really finding any true wonder and weirdness in its otherworldly evocations, actually continues the process instituted by Inception in reducing the fantastical to mere video game level-up business. Potentially good scenes here are thrown away, as when the Ancient One leaves Strange on the flank of Mount Everest to force him to master a portal-opening spell, where Derrickson cuts away so one can’t feel his isolation, fear, or chill, and most importantly what comes out of these—his focus, his transcendence, his grasp of another plane of action and being. Strange, instead of a passing through a great journey of spiritual and mental growth, becomes rather a quick-study nerd irritably speed-reading the instruction manuals, and making a ploy that seems self-sacrificial towards the end that is as perfunctory and unconvincing as Stark's was at the end of The Avengers (2012). The only thing that really keeps Doctor Strange watchable, not unexpectedly, is the quality of the cast. Swinton is fun as the Ancient One, able to invest her yoga-coach epigrams with a scintilla of gravitas and, more originally and entertainingly, a spry sense of well-meaning and decency. Even if, with head shaved, she looks like fey Voldemort. The best scene is an exchange between Strange and the Ancient One’s disembodied astral selves, locked in a moment of time playing out incredibly slowly so the Ancient One can watch a lightning bolt unfurl across the sky and flakes of snow hover in a moment of cosmic grace before succumbing to the void. This is the film’s one real graze with poeticism. Cumberbatch and McAdams are good enough actors and magnetic enough stars to make their characters’ interactions engaging in spite of all. Perhaps it’s a sign I’m getting old when I winced at being torn away from their tremulous romancing for another chase through digital flimflam. After this and Warcraft, the next time I’m watching a film where someone sprouts glowymagicky dial thingies out of their hands, I’ll save myself a lot of trouble and walk out there and then.

A real disappointment.

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