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Cloak and swagger
Having lost some enthusiasm for the surreal slug fests that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was serving up, along comes a lesser-known comic hero played by the actor du jour. Camus casts his eye (of Agamotto) over DOCTOR STRANGE...
  "We've been drawing on the Emperor in Star Wars for over 30 years, you know, and so we gotta start doing this some other way. You know, the magic power, the utilization of magic power. But there's some good fighting in it."
Director Scott Derrickson putting the visual clichés out to pasture.*


Doctor Strange is the most out and out fun I've had in a cinema for quite a long time and it makes me beam with pleasure having said that. And someone finally got the computer-generated imagery right in all three areas; quality, context and narrative requirement. Unless VFX is used as subtle enhancement – to all intents and purposes invisible (see Game of Thrones FX reels) – or for creating necessary inhuman characters, CG can be intrusive, narratively redundant and given the Zach Snyder Third Act treatment, an over-the-top yawn festival. Well, Doctor Strange is a masterclass in how to enhance your story, your characters and the whole audience experience with singularly extensive and highly visible CG. There are images in this movie that would take days to describe let alone create. The imagination on offer is exquisitely eclectic, justifiably jaw dropping and more importantly relevant. This is a movie about other planes of existence and states of mystical being, the visualization of which are a perfect fit for high powered digital wizardry. Practical effects could not hope to compete with their digital brethren and come out on top. But brilliant VFX is not why Strange is so much fun. It's just part of the heady mix. There are so many other aspects of the film that skip and sing and every ten minutes or so there is a piece of humour that makes you bark in surprise.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange

In the middle of a battle mid-way through the film, the sentient Cloak of Levitation has given its allegiance to Strange and mid-fight wants to direct his attention to something way cooler to fight with than the shield and axe he's reaching for on the wall in front of him... Now, I have no idea how they got away with this but as Strange is running on the spot while the cloak pulls him backwards, it looks like something out of a Mack Sennet short, the king of slapstick comedy in the silent movie days. How they manage to balance that kind of humour with the drama and still keep it on course is a wonder to behold. Before I delve into the plot, I must point out one exchange that again showcases smart humour (this is very Joss Whedon so all credit to screenwriters John Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill). This clip is available on line in the promos so it's no spoiler. The bad guy faces the good guy...

"You'll die defending this world, Mister?"
"Mister Doctor..."
"It's Strange!"
"Maybe, who am I to judge..."

It's a simple exchange but performed with such delicacy (overdo it and the drama deflates, underplay it and it's not funny) and made the 11am audience I saw it with this morning all chuckle delightedly. Doctor Steven Strange is essentially Doctor Gregory House and I am aware that I'm not the first to point this out but hey, the comparison is valid. Benedict Cumberbatch with his American accent is certainly channeling Hugh Laurie's irascible misanthrope and in one scene there's even a hint of the small problem Laurie has with certain sibilants. Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon with rock solid hands and delicate fingers and only takes interesting cases (sound familiar?) With his head down assessing an X-ray on an in-car iPad for a second, it's enough of a lapse of attention to have him lose control of what must be a supremely expensive car and Strange ends up battered and broken in the wreckage. Hands utterly smashed, his life unravels. Driven to find an experimental surgery-based cure, he alienates his friend, fellow surgeon and ex-lover Christine (a delightfully down to earth Rachel McAdams) and finds a man who is still walking after suffering from an accident that gave him no path back to using his legs and yet, here he is, playing basketball. Strange is desperate and travels to Nepal to find the same people who helped the basketball player and is taken in by a mystical group that introduces him to the many different realities that exist outside of his own narrow vision. I won't say any more on the plot because that's a major part of the fun. But I will say that an overused clip in the marketing of the movie where Strange is basted out of his body as an astral form has a really shocking effect while watching the movie itself. And that's all down to the sublime editorial timing (kudos to editors Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco) and assured performances.

The cast is a dream. Derrickson has mentioned that he wonders what he did in a previous life to deserve such a cast and he's quite right to marvel, no pun intended. Benedict Cumberbatch (for whom the mighty Marvel machine was stalled to give him time to finish his theatrical Hamlet run) is a pitch-perfect Doctor Strange. Not quite the asshole I was expecting in his pre-accident incarnation, he brings a wonderful Dawkins-like indignation to the idea of mysticism and alternate dimensions which makes it all the more effective when he's finally convinced and pleads "Teach me!" He is a reluctant hero, unwilling to fight despite the situation he finds himself in. But it takes a very special skill for an actor to convince us that if he swirls his hands in circular motions that he will summon a gateway in time and space. Yes, the VFX help to sell the illusion but the actor has got to 'get it' and Cumberbatch is funny, believable and as entertaining as anyone else on the big or small screen right now. He also gets his topless torso shot denied him in Star Trek Into Darkness and after all that gym work. Nice one, Captain Crieff.

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One

Cumberbatch's friend and fellow actor Chiwetel Ejiofor does a convincing job as Strange's supporter and fellow sorcerer who enables Strange to join the Kamer-Taj enclave. As Karl Mordo in the comics, he's a straight, unambiguous villain but the movie gives him the necessary impetus to turn to the darker side (stay until the end of the end credits to be treated to that narrative box tick). Ejiofor has always had the ability to exude calm, inner thought and wisdom whilst in the heat of battle and things are certainly heating up for the mystic defenders of the planet. Benedict Wong plays, uh... Wong, the second librarian (don't ask what happened to the first). Last seen by this reviewer playing the co-pilot of the titular craft in Prometheus, he really plays deadpan about as well as any seasoned pro. The scenes with his A-list namesake are a joy. Telegraphed to buggery that he will eventually laugh at something Strange says, the resolution of that little bit of business is particularly delightful. Mads Mikkelsen, he of the bloody tears in Casino Royale, plays the antagonist who questions his master's motives and has world-threatening ambition and a serious case of sleepy dust. He is a credible threat and is a convincing villain. But the stand out character that is at the very centre of the drama is The Ancient One played by a bald Tilda Swinton. My admiration for this actress knows few bounds. Her disintegration at the end of Michael Clayton should have won her an Oscar (for that one scene alone) and her wondrous performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin just dazzles me to the Mirror Dimension and beyond. She doesn't disappoint here. Strange has just had tea. He remarks how nice it is. As she's leaning over to put the teapot down, Swinton winks at him and I was surprised how much that tiny gesture made me smile. She undercuts the 'Gandalf' wisdom cliché at every turn and it's greatly refreshing. And we care. Later in the film something happens (duh) and I was actually moved at what occurs to her character. No spoilers but if you know your Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey... I'll just let that lay.

And the movie is laugh out loud funny, seemingly unafraid of undercutting the more serious dramatic moments. In fact the humour that works best is often right in the middle of a dramatic moment or in the middle of a fight. The subject matter of mysticism and magic is taken without tongues in cheek despite how easy it would be to make fun of all the hand twirling. I was a Marvel comic reader in my childhood but one reveling in the more mainstream end of the Marvel spectrum. The comic Doctor Strange existed outside of my super hero range. I was aware of him but 'magic' always seemed to be less fun than real but enhanced humans. This was my worry with Marvel's big left turn of a movie, that the 'magic' will be incomprehensible and therefore legitimately whacky eschewing any emotional connection with the characters. My worries were groundless. The magic is taken seriously and explained with enough information not to lose you in the mumbo-jumbo the comics often spouted... Lines like "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth," and its ilk have been reined in and mostly excised and when Mordo does let one slip, Strange inevitably takes the piss out of it.

Put simply, Doctor Strange is magic and I'm off to see it again in a few hours.


PostscriptOn the domination of CGI

Doctor Strange

Recently I had a small epiphany. Regular readers will know that both main contributors to this site are not great fans of computer-generated imagery for the sake of spectacle. Zach Snyder seems to be particularly infected by the desire for constant noise and a CG soaked canvas at which I just stare and think "...stopped caring now." But cinema, mainstream cinema is changing and CG is, simply, just a tool and very good at unleashing boundless imaginations. Well, I saw the sequel to a billion dollar-making Disney remake and I've had a rethink prompted by my partner's enjoyment of the film and my subsequent re-evaluation. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland shocked the industry by making so much (over a billion dollars) on its theatrical run. The sequel hasn't performed taking in under a third of its impressive original. But the imagination and superior work on Alice Through The Looking Glass has made me accept that CG is now an ongoing and deeply established part of the toolkit probably trumping the camera as the most important 'tool' available to the filmmaker. And if the minds making the creative decisions are honestly engaged to use it properly or when it's right (whoever can judge that), then I submit that Looking Glass may well be the first CG classic of its time. The creation of new worlds and characters takes one hell of a lot of work from thousands of artists on a film like Looking Glass. It only takes one tasteless director for that work to call attention to itself and yank you out of the movie. Director James Bobin seems to understand the needs of the story together with the integration of the VFX. There are scenes of astonishing beauty in Looking Glass and for the first time I was able to be told a story without wondering how long this shot or that shot took to render. It's very odd that I explicitly know that I am watching an artificially constructed narrative recorded onto a projected format with people pretending to be other people. It's a movie and suspension of disbelief is part of the deal. CG up until Looking Glass and Doctor Strange has always compromised that suspension of disbelief (unless it's invisible like the opening of Deadpool). Now, I'm learning, via superb practitioners, how to love the stories again no matter what technology has been employed to tell them.



Doctor Styrange poster
Doctor Strange

USA 2016
115 mins
directed by
Scott Derrickson
produced by
Kevin Feige
written by
Jon Spaihts
Scott Derrickson
C. Robert Cargill
from the comic book by
Steve Ditko
Ben Davis
Sabrina Plisco
Wyatt Smith
Michael Giacchino
production design
Charles Wood
Benedict Cumberbatch
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rachel McAdams
Benedict Wong
Mads Mikkelsen
Tilda Swinton
Michael Stuhlbarg
Benjamin Bratt
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
release date
25 October 2016
review posted
29 October 2016

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