I was running late for the screening of Marvel’s latest offering, Doctor Strange but I wasn’t too bothered. I was expecting the usual MCU schematic for origin stories and to some extent, that is precisely the end product although there is a welcome deviation from what I know to be the Doctor Strange source material as it offers a refreshing edge to the MCU, a classy aesthetic and most importantly, the rare 2016 sighting of sensible and justified use of CGI.
Now does it sport the most original of components; not really. Squint your eyes a little and the film’s protagonist, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is pretty much Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark given the inflated levels of entitlement. Yes, the CGI dazzles and won’t make you want to scratch your eyes out but it does get a little gimmicky after a while and of course, the inevitable Inception notes are hit with the architectural and spatial manipulation. And from a story standpoint, for a film about of magic, enchantment and traversing astral boundaries, there is very little imagination to breathe some vivacity into this film.
These points feel like nit-picks given the buoyant ride this film was. The schematic director Scott Derrickson adheres to is given life by the ever present wit and infusion of the mystical dimensions. But before we get down and dirty we have to sit through the first act that sees Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon lose everything when he is involved in a car accident. Of course, he’s the guy who texts and drives. His hands are damaged beyond repair and he is unable to shave let alone wield a scalpel with surgical precision. If you’ve seen the brilliant Marvel animated film, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme, you know how most of the first act goes.
In a perfect world, this Doctor Strange would have begun with our protagonist at his lowest ebb on the doorstep of a quaint looking structure in Kathmandu, Nepal waiting in hope at the prospect of receiving healing for his hands. He is some five hours removed from a world-bending encounter with the leader of a secret magic society, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The Matrix-y elements rear their head when our protagonist is told to throw away everything he knows about how the world works. The only possible limit to his development in this world will be his faith, imagination and humility.
Cumberbatch wheels out the steely charisma for his snarky and abrasive but likeable Stephen Strange. He conveys this enjoyable dry wit which is almost second nature for the British thespian. Swinton as the Ancient One takes a little getting used to. She kind of looks like Aang from Avatar, especially in the fight scenes (which are mostly meh). But she brings the gravitas as Strange’s teacher showing him the way with sagely wisdom underpinned by some quasi-Christian inflections. The exchanges between the two ooze class as Strange’s path in this world of mysticism becomes clearer, as well as the compromises the Ancient One has made to ensure some form of balance.
Derrickson’s screenplay wields some nuance and this becomes apparent by the end of the final post-credit scene. We are told Strange is the flexible one; willing to bend the rules and question everything before him. On the other hand, we have Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is presented as the rigid boy scout. As one of the servants of the Ancient One, he also serves as the straight edge mentor to Strange but of interest is his arch which has layers that just creep up on you, even with full knowledge of the source material. I will spare newbies the details.
The handling of Mordo’s character presents a strong Houdini act because I left the screening thinking Marvel had a tremendous hand going into the inevitable sequel. The flaws abound, yes. On the surface, it will look like Mads Mikkelsen’s purple eye-shadowed Kaecilius as the villain is underwhelming – because he is. The film’s plot delves into the intricacies of time vis a vis this enchanting new paradigm but also presents so head scratching plot holes and pacing issues. At least the chrono-manipulation also affords us simple spectacles that demonstrate the inventive use of special effects.
I want to say we should hold Marvel films to a higher standard than just being funny and enjoyable because it has all become so banal. But that would be disingenuous on my part. Marvel films are carved out of the same delightful steak and given the slew of cynical sub-par blockbusters we’ve seen in 2016, this steak was ever so tasty. The simple things continue to move the needle; the hilarious banter and comic timing in the scenes with Benedict Wong’s Wong or the final showdown that spoke to our protagonist’s journey of self-discovery above all or even Doctor Strange’s trademark crimson cloak which has its own unique inflections and again brings to mind Tony Stark.
It’s a brave new world of pure fantasy and enchantment the MCU is venturing into and I admit the film doesn’t dazzle us enough with the prospect of otherworldly magical apparitions but there is enough juice, among other story details, in there to leave us hopeful for more.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana