Sunday, November 20, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange was written by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson. It was also directed by Scott Derickson.

Spaihts previously co-wrote The Darkest Hour and Prometheus. Wow. Now that's a bad resume! Cargill is a former contributor to the Ain't It Cool internet movie news website, where he went by the pseudonym Massawyrm. He previously wrote Sinister and Sinister 2, both of which were barely acceptable little horror films.

Derrickson previously directed Urban Legends: Final Cut, Hellraiser: Inferno, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008), Sinister, Devil's Knot, Deliver Us From Evil and Sinister 2.

Jesus, with a pedigree like that, it's a wonder Doctor Strange even stuck to the film. Somehow, despite the dubious "talent" behind the scenes, this film turned out reasonably well.


This is Marvel Studios' fourteenth film. Wow, seems like just eight years ago I was sitting in the theater watching Iron Man.

Doctor Strange is slickly produced, well-made, well-acted and visually spectacular. That said, somehow it just didn't connect with me the way Marvel films like Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man did. Something just felt... off somehow.

I'm not sure why the movie didn't click with me. Maybe it has something to do with Benedict Cumberbatch's cold, steely demeanor. Maybe it's the fact that I've never been a big fan of the Doctor Strange character. Or maybe it's that, after fourteen films, I'm finally starting to develop "Marvel Fatigue." I hope not, but it's a possibility.

As I said, the special effects are amazing, but they just didn't engage me the way they should have. All the stuff with the warping buildings should have wowed me, but they left me cold. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I was kind of bored by it all. While watching I kept thinking of all the errands I needed to run after the movie was over.

If Doctor Strange had come out prior to Inception, all the scenes of twisting cityscapes would have made my jaw hit the floor. But here in 2016, all I could think was, "Seen it!" Sure, the scenes here were a bit different and more elaborate, but not by much.

In the past few years I've noticed that it's becoming harder and harder for special effects to wow me. I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out why, and have never come up with a positive answer.

I think it might be because with current CGI technology, it's now possible to put ANYTHING up on the screen. Somehow when you can do anything, then nothing is "special" anymore. 

For example: Back in 1980 I was positively gobsmacked when I saw the Battle Of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. The scenes of the snowspeeders battling the massive AT-ATs just blew me away. I couldn't believe what I was seeing up on the screen, and I even went back and saw the film six or seven times that summer. 

I think the reason that scene was so amazing to me was because it was real. A squad of effects men actually constructed detailed models of the ships with their bare hands. They painted a realistic sky backdrop, as well as building a miniature set. They then placed the AT-AT models on their snowy set and painstakingly animated them one frame at a time. There was craftsmanship and skill involved. Even if I wasn't consciously aware of all this, my mind was, and on a subconscious level I knew I was looking at something tangible.

Compare that to Doctor Strange, in which absolutely nothing is real. Sure, someone had to build a virtual New York City in a computer, and write a program that would warp and twist the buildings. But then they hit the "render" button and sat back and let the computer do all the work. It's just not the same. There's no human element involved. It's all too slick and polished, which I think is why it failed to engage me. All those scenes of New York twisting and warping was literally like watching a computer masturbate onto the screen.

There's also a lot of odd, out of place humor in the film, much of which feels tacked on. Doctor Strange has never struck me as a particularly funny character— in fact I've always thought he was a bit of a jerk. Here he's joking and riffing one minute, and being an ass the next, as the filmmakers do their best to turn him into a magical version of Tony Stark. 

The problem is, Robert Downey Jr. has a sort of "bad boy" quality to him and can effortlessly pull off the "charming asshole" bit. Cumberbatch, not so much. He can do the asshole part perfectly, but can't seem to manage the charming part.

I can't prove it, but I have a feeling that Strange was initially a much more serious character. Then a Marvel executive saw a rough cut of the film, said, "Why's Doctor Strange such a bastard? We can't have a hero who's a jerk! Put some jokes in the movie! The kids love jokes!" and the director shot a bunch of humorous scenes during pickups and shoehorned them into the movie.

Once again we get another Marvel movie with a lame, underdeveloped villain in Kaecilius. It's pretty much par for the course at this point. Heck, Dormammu was more interesting than Kaecilius, and he was just a big floating CGI head!

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
As the film opens, an evil sorcerer named Kaecilius (played by Mads Mikkelsen) enters the library of the secret mystical compound known as Kamar-Taj. Yeah, get ready to deal with lots of bizarre names like this. Kaecelius and his goons kill the librarian and rip out a couple of pages from an ancient and dangerous book of magic. They teleport to what appears to be New York City, where they're confronted by a mysterious cloaked figure called the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton). She demands Kaecilius return the pages, but he goes all Inception on her ass and starts bending reality (and the city's skyscrapers) to disorient her while he escapes.

We're then introduced to Tony Stark Doctor Steven Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), in a scene designed to demonstrate that he's a brilliant surgeon as well as a world-class asshole (and yes, his name is really "Strange"). We're also introduced to his old flame Dr. Christine Palmer (played by Rachel McAdams), who's sole function in the film is to prove to the audience that the superhero with the flowing red cape doesn't have teh gays. Strange performs a delicate brain surgery on a patient, which sets up the fact that he has excellent manual dexterity, I guess.

That night Strange speeds away in his Lamborghini to an awards dinner. He reviews potential patients as he drives, which distracts him long enough to fly his car off a cliff. It flips end over end and lands in the river. Serves him right for texting while driving!

He wakes in a hospital bed, and is horrified to see his hands, which were crushed in the accident, are now useless for surgery. This predictably sends him into a spiral of self-doubt and depression, and he even pushes Christine away. He exhausts his considerable fortune seeking a way to heal his shattered hands, but nothing works. He hears about a man named Jonathan Pangborn, a paraplegic who somehow learned to walk again. Strange tracks down Pangborn at a basketball court, and asks him his secret. Pangborn implies he healed himself with magic, and tells Strange he'll find the answers he seeks in Kamar-Taj.

Strange travels to Nepal and wanders through Kathmandu. He's attacked by muggers in an alley, but saved in the nick of time by a man named Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Mordo takes him to Kamar-Taj, where he meets the Ancient One. Being an asshole, Strange is dismissive of her until she punches him in the chest and knocks his astral form out of his physical body. That'll show him! She shows him various other planes and dimensions, until he begs her to teach him.

The Ancient One is reluctant to teach Strange, saying he reminds her of Kaecilius, a pupil of hers until he turned to evil (Hmmm... where have I heard that line before?). Eventually she relents. Through the power of a montage, Strange begins learning and practicing magic. He catches on quickly (way too quickly, if you ask me), learning how to create magical defensive shields and open doorways to any point on the planet. Mordo, who wields a magical weapon, and tells Strange that someday a weapon will choose him.

Strange meets Wong, Karmar-Taj's new librarian, who shows him there are three Sanctums
 in New York City, London and Hong Kong that form a barrier protecting Earth from interdimensional threats. It's the job of sorcerers like Mordo and Wong protect the Sanctums. Strange, who, if you haven't figured it out by now, is a jerk, and says he's only there to find a way to heal his hands, and has no interest in Sanctums or threats.

Later Strange enters the library alone and uses the Eye Of Agamotto, which has time-bending powers, to see the pages Kaecilius stole from the forbidden book. He's caught by Mordo, who warns him against using time spells, as they can upset the natural order and destroy the universe.

Meanwhile, Kaecilius deciphers the pages he stole and declares he'll use them to summon Dormammu, an all-powerful, gigantic CGI demon who controls the Dark Dimension. Kaecilius attacks the London Sanctum. Mordo teleports there to help, and send Strange to New York to protect its Sanctum. Strange wanders around the New York Sanctum, looking at various artifacts. He passes a glass case containing a red cloak of levitation, which reacts to his presence.

Suddenly Kaecilius and his acolytes attack the New York Sanctum. Strange defends it, managing to toss two of the zealots through a dimensional gate. The cloak breaks out of its case and captures Kaecilius. Strange restrains him with a spell, and the cape releases him. It then settles around Strange's shoulders, apparently "choosing" him. Kaecilius warns Strange not to trust the Ancient One, as she isn't as pure as she lets on, claiming she's using power from the Dark Dimension to fuel her immortality. Suddenly one of the zealots returns and stabs Strange in the side, allowing Kaecilius to escape. Strange teleports to his former hospital and asks Christine for help. She works on his body while his astral self fights the zealot, eventually killing him. Christine heals Strange's body, he thanks her and leaves her stunned and bewildered.

The Ancient One and Mordo arrive in New York and join Strange. Kaecilius arrives with more zealots, and they all engage in a massive, magical set piece battle, bending reality as they warp various buildings in an effort to disorient one another. The Ancient One is mortally wounded, as Kaecilius an his followers teleport away. Strange takes her to Christine's hospital. While she's on the operating table, her astral form talks with Strange. She says this is her time, and confirms that she used forbidden Dark Dimension magic to live this long. She tells Strange it's sometimes necessary to bend the rules a bit. Her astral form then dissipates as her body dies.

Strange and Mordo realize Kaecilius is attacking the Hong Kong Sanctum, and teleport there. Unfortunately they're too late, as the Sanctum has been destroyed and the city is in ruins. Kaecilius stands in the center of the city, and magically opens a portal to let Domammu through. Jesus, again with the portals opening over a city. Strange uses the Eye Of Agamotto to begin reversing the destruction. He flies into Kaecilius' portal into the Dark Dimension.

Inside the Dark Dimension, Strange the Eye Of Agamotto to conjure a powerful time spell to trap him in a loop. He then confronts the massive Dormammu, who instantly kills him. The loop resets, and Strange confronts him again. Lather, rinse, repeat. No matter how many times Dormammu kills Strange, he always pops back up, thanks to the time loop. Strange tells Dormammu that he's caught in the loop as well, which infuriates the demon. He finally makes a deal with Strange, promising to leave Earth alone in exchange for freeing him from the loop.

Strange returns to Hong Kong, and flings Kaecilius and his followers into the Dark Dimension just before the portal closes. Thanks to his powers, the city is now restored. Back at the Sanctum, Mordo is upset with Strange for breaking the rules by altering time. He says there'll be a reckoning, takes his ball and leaves. Strange becomes the new protector of the New York Sanctum.

In the mid credits scene, Strange meets with Thor and offers to help him find his brother Loki and purge him from Earth.

In the after credits scene, Mordo is apparently so pissed that Strange broke the rules that he's turned evil. He visits Pangborn and removes his magic, paralyzing him again. He says there are two many irresponsible sorcerers on Earth.

Thoughts:

• Before the movie premiered, there was much whining and rending of garments over the fact that the Ancient One, a character who was an Asian man in the comics, was being played by British actress Tilda Swinton.

I have a feeling this was a "Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't" scenario. Marvel Studios claims that the comic book version of the Ancient One was an offensive "Fu Manchu" stereotype, and Asians would have been offended by the character. That's the "Damned If You Do" part. 

So Marvel then decided to change the Ancient One into a woman. Fair enough. But then they pulled the boneheaded move of casting the whitest woman possible in the role. This is the "Damned If You Don't Part."

I really don't get their thinking here. There's no earthly reason why they couldn't have cast an Asian woman in the part. They can't even use the old "Box Office Draw" excuse that studios always dredged up to justify their whitewashing. Tilda Swinton's a fine actress, but it's not like she's a household name.

I generally think people whine way too much about all this so-called whitewashing crap, but in this case I think it's justified.

• Ever since the Doctor Strange trailer premiered, I've been puzzled by the movie version of Mordo. See, in the comics, Baron Mordo was one of Doctor Strange's most powerful and persistent enemies
. He was the Moriarty to Strange's Sherlock Holmes. Yet in this film they're inexplicably allies, and even pals.

Now that I've seen the movie, all is clear. Mordo starts out as an ally, but becomes disillusioned and turns to the dark side.

I kind of like the little story arc he had in the film. It'll give him a nice backstory when he shows up in the inevitable sequel. Who knows, Mordo may turn out to be the first villain since Loki who's not an underdeveloped washout.

One last thing about Mordo
 in the comics he's a white man who hails from Transylvania. Here he's played by black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Given the over-reactive nature of the internet, I'm surprised no one's complained that the only black character in the film turns out to be a bad guy.

• Right before Doctor Strange's fateful car wreck, he's going over a list of potential patients. One is described as a thirty five year old Marine colonel "who's crushed his lower spine in some kind of experimental armor." I thought, "Ah, that's a reference to Rhodey in Captain America: Civil War." I'm betting most viewers thought the same thing.

After the film was over though, I realized they couldn't be talking about James Rhodes. First of all, Rhodey's an Air Force colonel, not a Marine. Secondly, actor Don Cheadle (who plays Rhodey) is many things, but thirty five years old is not one of them. Cheadle's currently fifty one
 surely they don't expect us to believe Rhodey's in his thirties?

So even though this line seems like a little Marvel Cinematic Universe Easter Egg, it's can't be. Unless the writers just really, really don't know their Marvel history.

In the same scene, Strange reviews the case of a woman in her twenties who was struck by lightning, and also has an implant in her brain to control schizophrenia. Some fans believe this is a reference to Captain Marvel, who has her own movie scheduled in the far off year of 2019.

Obviously this isn't how the comic book version of Captain Marvel got her powers. There she became a superhero after an explosion fused her DNA with that of her boyfriend, an alien Kree warrior who went by the name of Mar-Vell. I could definitely see them jettisoning that complicated origin for the movie, and going with the lightning thing. We'll find out in three years!

• In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jasper Sitwell rattles off a list of high-risk suspects that are on a HYDRA watch list. One of the people on this list is Stephen Strange.

Winter Soldier came out in 2014, which was long before Strange became a sorcerer. So why would he be on a list that contained other dangerous suspects such as Bruce Banner?

I'm guessing it's because either there wasn't a Doctor Strange movie on the schedule when that scene was written, or more likely, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't as cohesive and fleshed-out as the fans think it is. In other words, it was a mistake.

• I know all too well that Marvel Studios executives who are in charge of the films don't give a single sh*t about the TV shows. But over on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., they're currently in the middle of a storyline involving the Darkhold, an ancient book of forbidden knowledge. How hard would it have been for them to have shown the Darkhold sitting in the restricted section of Wong's library? Just a little glimpse of it would have been so cool, and would have neatly tied the movie and TV universes together.

• Speaking of the library in contains a restricted section where the most dangerous spell books are locked down with chains, to prevent anyone from removing them from the shelf. When Doctor Strange enters this section, he spots an interesting-looking book, reaches up, undoes the chain with a quick flip of one hand and takes the book down from the shelf. Wha....?

What the hell's the point of stringing a chain across a book if it's not even locked? And why even have a restricted section at all if anyone can waltz into it and grab any forbidden book they please?


• I liked the film's depiction of magic, as visible rings of glowing sigils.

Too bad Warcraft beat 'em to the punch by six months though.

So just how do Strange and all the other sorcerers perform this film's particular brand of magic? They don't use any instruments like wands, and they I don't think they ever utter any spells. They just sort of... do it somehow.

Is it the training? Can anyone perform magic if they know the procedure? Is it a matter of willpower? If a person concentrates hard enough, can they conjure a glowing magical shield? Is there something inside certain people that makes them adept at using magic, like "magic-chlorians? Your guess is as good as mine, because there's never an attempt at an explanation.

• One big complaint I have about the film Doctor Strange masters the use of magic wayyyyyy too quickly and easily.

When we first see him practicing, it's all he can do to cause a couple of fitful sparks to appear before him. Then we're treated to a Rocky III-style training montage, and suddenly he's casting powerful protective shields and attacking Kaecilius' minions with magical blasts.

How the hell did he learn all that so quickly, and so well? It all seemed way too easy for him. The movie rushes through his learning process so quickly that his skills don't seem earned. Or deserved. He's much too smug about his new-found abilities as well.

• During Strange's training, Mordo wields a weapon he calls the Staff Of The Living Tribunal. In the comics, the Living Tribunal was a powerful cosmic entity, who oversees and maintains the balance of the multiverse.

Was this a bit of foreshadowing, implying we'll eventually see the Living Tribunal in a sequel? Or was it just namedropping for the fanboys?

• In the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, he's seen laughing hysterically at a copy of Aldous Huxley's The Doors Of Perception. In it, Huxley recounts his experiences taking mescaline and other mind-altering drugs, and his thoughts on his altered sense of perception. Based on the film, it's a fitting read for Stan.

• The Eye Of Agamotto that Strange wears in the film is another one of the Infinity Gems. It's the Time Gem, and is the fifth one we've seen so far. 

We saw the Space Gem (aka the Tesseract) in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Reality Gem (aka the Aether) in Thor: The Dark World, the Power Gem (aka the Orb) in Guardians Of The Galaxy and the Mind Gem (Vision's power source) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. One more to go!

• Here's some really hardcore nitpicking for you. When Strange is wounded, he teleports to the hospital and asks Christine for help. In one scene, we see she's wearing blue nail polish.

In reality, surgeons aren't allowed to wear nail polish as it's considered an infection risk.

• When Christine is treating Strange in the hospital, his heart stops. Of course she gets out the defibrillator paddles and shocks his ticker back into working order.

Sigh... It's an old, old refrain here at Bob Canada's BlogWorld, but here we go again defibrillator units DO NOT work like this. You CANNOT shock a stopped heart into beating again like you're jump starting a car battery.

It's a dream of mine that one day someone will make a movie in which defib paddles are used correctly. I have no idea how this dangerously erroneous trope ever got started, but I wish it'd die a quick death.

• In the mid credits scene, Thor says he's searching for his evil brother Loki on Earth, and Strange offers to help him. Don't we already know where Loki is? I'm pretty sure last time we saw him, he was impersonating his father Odin at the end of Thor: The Dark World. So why would he be here on Earth? Did Loki's status change while we weren't looking?


Doctor Strange is the latest slickly-produced and well made entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it just didn't connect with me the way their other movies have. Somehow it manages to look amazing and be boring at the same time. I also found it hard to warm up to the Doctor, possibly due to Benedict Cumberbatch's icy demeanor. Your mileage may vary of course, but I give it a B-.

2 comments:

  1. The defibrillator trope did indeed die a death many moons ago but someone got out the paddles and... Oh!

    I'm hoping it's only Thor who doesn't know where Loki is as he still is in full 'Fauxdin' mode or it may be more evidence the Marvel quality may be starting to slack :-(

    ReplyDelete
  2. The defib thing has become so ingrained in the public's mind that my local supermarket now has a unit hanging on the wall. I can just see some minimum wage bag boy shocking some poor victim over and over, wondering why they won't wake up.

    Maybe the new Thor movie takes place BEFORE Doctor Strange? That was Thor could discover Loki is posing as Odin, and he could flee to Earth.

    Or, they just forgot what happened in The Dark World.

    ReplyDelete

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