Saturday, November 5, 2016


Humor is clearly a key element in Marvel Studios' effort to make their movies "fun," as compared to Zack Snyder's relatively humorless Superman movies for Warner Bros. It's been widely reported that the Warner Bros. team is scrambling to inject more humor into their future projects in response to hostile reviews of the particularly humorless Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but to look at the latest Marvel Studios production, you'd think Marvel was just as desperate. The fact is, at least in my experience, that Doctor Strange has always been one of Marvel's more humorless comic book characters. For that reason, at least, Doctor Strange's glib comedy, from one-liners to pandering oldies-music references, seems to have been shoehorned into the story more blatantly than ever before. As a comic book fan (and something of an apologist for Dawn of Justice) I find myself resenting the need to inject comedy where I don't feel the need for it, for the sake of accessibility or to spare the layman the embarrassment of a film taking itself too seriously. By the same standard I should demand fight scenes and car chases in romance movies, lest they "take themselves too seriously," i.e. respect the integrity of their genre. But rather than rant further on that subject, let me say that the comedy bugged me this time more than usual because it seemed both more forced and more lame, whether it was the running gag of the villain calling the hero "Mr. Doctor" or Dr. Strange's Cloak of Levitation slapping him in the face.  Let me suggest also that I found the forced humor annoying because Doctor Strange is actually a fairly decent film overall and would have remained so without the gags.

The strange thing about that is that Strange bears a strong structural resemblance to one of the genre's most notorious flops, Warner Bros.' Green Lantern (2011). Consider: asshole neophyte, already an expert in one trade, is plunged into a profoundly confounding and alien bootcamp-like experience, helped along by a sort of stuck-up mentor with a villainous destiny, before saving the world by defeating an almost inchoate cosmic entity. The difference is all in the execution, even if that comes with Marvel's formulaic comedy. The execution that counts here isn't so much the writing, since there's nothing particularly brilliant or original in the script or its realization, but the acting by the new champion in the Most Overqualified Cast of a Superhero movie Category. In the title role, Benedict Cumberbatch initially seems uncomfortable with both the jokey arrogance of his character and his American accent, but he grows on you and by the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, he looks like the comics come to life. His supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen, as compared to whoever was backing up Ryan (unDeadpool) Reynolds in Green Lantern. Hard to go wrong with that lineup, especially when your studio knows how to put together a superhero movie, as Warner Bros. arguably still hasn't fully learned in Christopher Nolan's absence.

Doctor Strange is a necessarily elaborated version of the original origin story by Stan Lee (here seen laughing over Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception) and Steve Ditko. It's imperative for director Scott Derrickson and his co-writers to flesh out Stephen Strange's background by giving the star surgeon a girlfriend/colleague (McAdams) who doesn't exist in the original story and is, in fact, borrowed from other comics. In the original Strange's background is irrelevant after the setup of the smug surgeon losing effective use of his hands in a car wreck and falling from grace until he learns of a chance for mystic healing in the East. As is common and understandable in our time, the people Strange meets in the movie are different from those of the same names he meets in the comics. The Ancient One (Swinton) is a "Celtic" woman instead of an Asian man -- reminiscent of the High Lama of Shangri-La in  Lost Horizon in that respect -- while her head disciple Mordo (Ejiofor) is white in the comics, black in the movie. Inevitably people have griped over Swinton stealing an Asian actor's rice bowl, so to speak, but unless you're going to protest Ejiofor's casting as well -- as some, less likely politically correct, surely have -- you should just shut up about Swinton. In the major departure from the early stories, Mordo is not the villain of the piece, though the movie sets him on the road to antagonism toward Strange, but rather the Ancient One's right-hand man in a battle with the renegade sorcerer Kacellius (Mikkelsen) and his little band of Zealots, who seek victory over death by bring Earth into the timeless Dark Dimension ruled by the dread Dormammu. In classic American hero tradition, Strange proves a quick study after a slow start, initially handicapped by ego and a reluctance to surrender to imponderable mystic forces, and finds a way to victory by breaking long-revered rules if not the "natural law" itself, despite the conservative resistance of Mordo and Wong (Benedict Wong) -- the latter upgraded from Strange's servant to the Ancient One's librarian and a sort of sorcerer in his own right.

Derrickson's film owes much of its look less to Steve Ditko than to Christopher Nolan; it has a dreamlike quality insofar as the mystical realm looks and moves a lot like Inception. To be fair, the sorcerers' space-bending antics wouldn't be out of place in a Ditko comic but as shown here they can't help but look derivative of if not stolen from Nolan. Fortunately, the Marvel team helps us keep our minds on the action, though the action here inevitably lacks some of the ideal clarity of the more conventional brawling in mundane superhero pictures. Oddly, Doctor Strange opts for anticlimax by hinging the picture on a mindgame the hero plays on Dormammu, well away from the main action on Earth but probably a necessity for fans who would have found no Doctor Strange film complete without the old hothead. The film seems to stop rather than end, without a really satisfying wrap-up or even a punchline, though of course the audience expects to see the real ending during and after the credits. In the end the charismatic cast puts the film over despite its flaws, and in a year of really bad superhero movies -- it's hard to decide whether the spasmodic Suicide Squad or the enervating X-Men: Apocalypse was the worst of all -- this one doesn't really seem bad at all.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

What I didn't mention in my review, Sammy, is that Cumberbatch played Strange the same way Robert Downey, Jr. played Tony Stark in the Iron Man & Avengers movies, with an unnecessary joke in almost every scene. As I remember the early Dr. Strange stories, Strange's ego gave way to his new persona as a sorcerer gradually.