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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

At The Fleapit: Doctor Strange (2016)


I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again, there's a small part of me that still can't believe I'm living in an age where there's a blockbuster movie of Doctor Strange (a character I've read about since I was a teeny comic book reader many, many years ago) as well as Supergirl (and Superman) and The Flash on my TV.

This truly is a golden age to be a geek and tweenage me continues to geekgasm in my head, while I fight the urge to just grin from ear-to-ear every day that I open a comic book, switch on the TV, or go to the cinema.

Which is why it pains me to admit that Doctor Strange isn't a particularly great Marvel movie.

I can't fault the actors (Benedict Cumberbatch is pitch perfect as the titular Doctor Stephen Strange and everyone else works well with the material they are given), so I have to place the blame squarely at the feet of horror writer/director Scott Derrickson.

This is a film about magic. About bringing magic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But much of the magic - as flashy and visually stimulating as it is - is either fireworks or pointless twisty buildings (à la Inception).

There's no real cleverness or subtly to the magic, and a lot of the time there's no reason for it.

The Inception-inspired imagery, that dominated many of the trailers for Doctor Strange, is stunning and memorable, but ultimately serves no purpose. It is style over substance writ large.

And the magical weapons that the sundry sorcerers conjure up are - firework-effects tripped away - just mundane weapons.

While it's nowhere near as bad as a DC Universe movie, too much of Doctor Strange - especially the action sequences - also unfolds in dimly lit interiors or at night.

Stephen Strange is a superb, but arrogant, neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car crash.

His quest to regain the fine motor skills that made his name ultimately leads him to a monastery in Kathmandu where he becomes a pupil of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).

As well as teaching Strange the art of magic, she introduces him to the concept of alternate dimensions, astral projection etc

However, Strange and his allies - Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) - end up running afoul of corrupt sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has become a servant of the powerful extradimensional entity known as Dormammu, who wants to take over the world. Or eat it. Or something.

While Dormammu's ultimate objective is rather vague, the motivations of Kaecilius and his followers aren't explained at all.

Like the majority of Marvel Studio's "origin story" films, Doctor Strange simply ends up fighting a dark reflection of himself (Kaecilius), but usually the reason for this fight is more obvious, more personal, and better justified.

Honesty, the superb Mikkelsen - who I'll watch in anything - is as wasted in Doctor Strange as Christopher Eccleston was in Thor: The Dark World.

Doctor Strange's plot rattles along at a goodly lick, so there's never any danger of getting bored, but this is a treat for eyes rather than the mind.

There are some moments of comedy, to alleviate the apocalyptically grim tone of the story, although the forced humour with the sentient Cloak Of Levitation was a bit too Harry Potter for my tastes.  That aside, the verbal wit of the film better reflects the Marvel tone.

Ironically, the story is stronger in its smaller, human, moments, with the growth of Strange's character, his transition from sceptic to believer, while the grander, magical moments (which should have been the bits I loved the most) felt largely empty, dazzling effects for their own sake rather than serving the story.

But then perhaps what could you expect from the director who gave us jump scare-fests likes Hellraiser: Inferno, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us from Evil?

When you put a known B-movie horror director in charge of a project like this, but tell him to make a certificate 12A superhero film, what's left in his bag of tricks but a surfeit of CGI?

I wish, as a self-professed schlock horror movie fan, that Doctor Strange had been more scary, with more actual monsters (rather than a big, talking head-cloud that reminded me too much of the dreadful cinematic iteration of Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer).

Continuity-wise it also felt peculiar that Marvel would bring in Dormammu as an almost throwaway villain, when he was clearly more powerful than Thanos - who is supposed to be the Big Bad of the Marvel Universe.

Now, when Strange joins The Avengers to fight Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, there's going to need to be a very good reason as to why he can't just pull the same trick - or something similar - on Thanos that he does to defeat to Dormammu here!

I suspect the answer will be "Infinity Stones", but still...

Perhaps my expectations were too high, as Doctor Strange is a character I've long admired, but I came out of the film feeling disappointingly unmoved by much of the preceding two hours.

Should you go see Doctor Strange, don't forget to stay through the credits. There's a good couple of post-credit scenes for those who persevere: one suggesting that Strange might pop up in next year's Thor: Ragnarök and one setting up the villain for the, as yet, unscheduled Doctor Strange sequel.

When that comes, I hope Marvel either choose a different writer/director or gives Scott Derrickson free rein with his horror tendencies.

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