Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Power Overwhelming: Marvel’s Doctor Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in Doctor Strange.

Something I'll call "power balancing" is always a problem for writers working on fantastical fictional stories. How do superpowers stack up against, say, mutant powers? How does a universe like the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue to function with even a shred of internal logic when you throw magic into the mix? According to Doctor Strange, the answer is: you work according to formula.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Marvel has had over a decade of practice refining this particular formula, and they're damn good at it by now. Audiences know what they're in for, and the studio has become extremely adept at delivering exactly that (sometimes, if we're deserving, with a little extra on the side). Moviegoers know to expect a hero like Dr. Stephen Strange (an Americanized Benedict Cumberbatch), the goateed egotistical millionaire genius who learns to fight for something greater than himself. They know to expect underwritten and uninspiring villains like Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who pay lip service to having three-dimensional personalities but always devolve into comically evil archetypes. They know to expect passive, uninteresting love interests like Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). They know to expect huge, gut-punching climactic setpieces in which a portal opens above a massive city centre and threatens to swallow up all the normies. (If they're paying attention, they may even expect supporting players like Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo and Tilda Swinton's Ancient One, who elevate the material just by being there, punching way above the weight of the movie they're in.) But there's a comfort and a stability in this; these Marvel movies are becoming almost as episodic as their Saturday afternoon source material. Comic book movies are getting ever more, well, comic-book-y – and it's taken almost 20 years for audiences to adjust, but I'm chuffed that we've finally arrived at a general acceptance of how weird and goofy and light and fun this material should be.

The formula goes down a lot easier when it's this well executed. I was excited for Doctor Strange to introduce some weirdness into the MCU, and it absolutely does. This is a film chock full of mystical mumbo jumbo, ancient cosmic evil, interdimensional travel, magical artifacts, and healthy doses of Westernized wizarding chop-socky – a far cry from the tech-heavy tales of Tony Stark and friends. (Even Thor's two outings haven't matched Doctor Strange in terms of fantasy extravagance. I was constantly delighted to hear expository dialogue devoted to things like the Book of Cagliostro, the Cloak of Levitation, or the Eye of Agamotto, which were helpful not only in introducing some rich fictional flavour to the MCU, but also helped the non-nerds in the audience with even the barest idea of what the hell was supposed to be happening.) But for all that, it's still a brisk, energetic, exciting film, with visual ingenuity and verve that far exceeds anything Marvel's ever done, that finds room to do clever things with the story while avoiding the power balancing issue – within this one movie, anyway.

It does this in a few ways. When Strange, hands crippled by irreversible nerve damage that stops him from pursuing his profession as a neurosurgeon, turns to Eastern mysticism to heal his wounds, we’re shown that the learnings of Kamar-Taj aren’t locked away from the world. This isn’t Harry Potter, where you either got the magical gene or you don’t. Anyone, if they demonstrate enough skill and determination, can be accepted by the Ancient One and taught the mystical arts, and perhaps even inherit the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme – which, in addition to grounding the weird fiction of this film in an exciting, relatable context, helps distract from the racially-charged source material, which has been rightly criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of Asian culture. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is a Celtic androgyne instead of the racist Fu Manchu archetype we expect, and Wong (Benedict Wong) – Strange’s tea-pouring manservant in the original comic – is now a fierce and independent mentor. The casting is precisely tuned to avoid internet outcry, and though it has been accused of purposefully downplaying Tibetan culture in an effort to appeal to Chinese audiences (a disgusting notion, no matter how you slice it), I really don’t see how it could have been done without offending someone. I think director Scott Derrickson, the casting people, and the studio did the best they could to navigate these treacherous waters by sticking to a creative decision that serves the story and the world of the MCU, and though they may deserve the scrutiny levelled against them, I think they deserve some patient consideration, too.

Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange.

But it’s hard to focus on issues like this when Doctor Strange is busy assaulting your senses with visual effects that rival anything Hollywood is producing. Some of its most jaw-dropping sequences come thanks to the power of the relic that Strange inherits, the aforementioned Eye of Agamotto, which – without spoiling – allows its user to manipulate the flow of time. This is perhaps the best and most deadly example of the power balancing issue: it might have been because she was unsure if she would make it past the second book, but J.K. Rowling made a horrendous mistake by introducing the Time-Turner so early in the Harry Potter saga – a device so powerful that it renders nearly all the story conflicts that follow utterly moot (and was hastily hand-waved by entrusting it to the most comically responsible student in the history of literature). The Eye of Agamotto presents a similar problem, but at least Doctor Strange finds a way to make it integral to the final confrontation in a way that’s original, interesting, and deeply connected to the character growth of the titular M.D. We’ll see how it shakes out in Avengers: Infinity War, I guess.

I haven’t spoken enough about how beautiful the film is to look at (despite the fact that some of the fisticuffs are shot in too much of a Greengrass shaky cam-style for my taste), but my words won’t do it justice. The truth is that a film like this simply wasn't possible during the nascent years of the MCU. We've advanced to a level of technical filmmaking that allows for dazzling visual representations of spells, wards, spectral weapons, sparking portals, and multiverses galore that amaze rather than distract the eye. An early sequence that has a skeptical Strange launched into a gallery of ever more kaleidoscopic parallel universes is the one to beat in terms of memorable visual feasts in cinema – as audacious as 2001: A Space Odyssey and twice as colourful. Even if the film weren’t as funny, fascinating, and weird as it is, I’d recommend it purely based on the visual effects. You can’t see this stuff anywhere else.

And that’s perhaps the strongest thing that recommends Doctor Strange over its peers, MCU and otherwise. It stands out to me as among the best in the pack – right up there with Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Civil War – simply because it’s bold and brassy enough to surprise us, to subvert our expectations, to take us places and show us things we’ve never seen before in comic book cinema. That it does so while comfortably settling into the slick, familiar, ultra-polished Marvel style is icing on the cake. Check this one out – and tell ‘em Doctor Justin sent ya.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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