Thursday, November 24, 2016

Dr. Strange

Less Than Passing Strange
Mysto-babble is Dumber than Techno-babble

Hocus-pocus Marvelocus.

Marvel's mystical mage, Dr. Strange, makes it to the big-screen, with a lot of what made the comic interesting and a lot of what makes that comic problematic for writers—Strange is one of the characters that goes in and out of publication due to poor sales and then is brought back when somebody has an "innovative take" on the wizard.

Back in the 1960's (when artist Steve Ditko created it and Stan Lee provided the script), the comic was a big hit with the college-crowd, precisely for Ditko's warpy-woofy graphics (which is CGI'd ever so briefly in a tantalizingly short "trip" sequence), even becoming a black-light poster that was available in "head-shops" of the era. A direct example of "pop-art" (as opposed to Lichtenstein's "inspired" prints), it was emblematic of the psychedelic sensibilities and the *POW!* school of three-colored extremism.

In the superhero genre (and it's Marvel Universe sub-genre), this is a fair-to-middling adaptation, not as bad as some have been, nor as "fresh" as some of the recent "minor" Marvel films manage to get away with. But, Dr. Strange is no Ant-Man or Guardian of the Galaxy. He's one of the identifiable "big-league" Marvel characters—the type you wonder why they're MIA in the brand's cine-universe. Befitting a major player, it tries hard, very hard to wow with visual splendor while going a bit light in the impact/ramifications side of things. If the good Doctor stayed "out" of the MU, I'm not sure that anyone would miss him.

The narrative is rather flat. A "bad-guy" does something "bad." The "good-guy" is a jerk who must have a change of conscience in order to live up to the responsibilities that are handed him (this is especially true of the Marvel Universe) rather than being an innately good soul who sees his abilities as a gift to be shared (the DCU template). In Marvel, you gotta learn a lesson, campers, before you're going all-"Excelsior!"

The film introduces us to the magical world with a library invasion—always exciting—as Kaecilius (played by Mads Mikkelson, perpetually dyspeptic) and his coven of bad magi attempt to check out a book (without a card!). There's some business about energy whipping the caretaker and hoisting him spread-eagled—in what I believe is called a "disruption"—before beheading him (the things people do to avoid fines). Kaecilius then rips a couple of choice pages from the book they're seeking and create a magical portal out of the library and into the streets of New York City, where he meets a yellow-garbed opponent who engages the group by literally changing the playing field, distending, convoluting, and bending the financial district. Despite all the "Eschering", "Kaeci" escapes to make good on his plans, who the hell cares. It ain't good, even if it may look impressive.

Cut to New York where Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a smooth operator on brains—a brilliant neurosurgeon, dismissive of all but one doctor (Rachel McAdams) at his Manhattan hospital. Egocentric, rude, and cavalier, he may know his way around brains but knows nothing about hearts. Until "one fateful night" where he crashes his car—while texting, and there's even a "Don't Do This, Kids" warning in the end-credits, sandwiched between the more-gratuitous-than-normal "sneak-peeks" at the end. He's wracked up, but the part of him that suffers the most damage is his ego—his hands are permanently disabled, and with it, his worth as a surgeon and, to his mind, as a man.

He travels to Katmandu, Shangri-la-la-land, or where-ever to seek out the secrets of tapping what there is of his soul to overcome the paralysis of his hands. After being beaten up by toughs, he is rescued by Mordo (Chiwetel Ojiofor), who takes him to the dojo of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, who, if she doesn't overcome the racism inherent in her casting, at least overcomes the sexism inherent in the role). She shows Strange "the ropes" (or at least the silver strings) that separate the corporeal from the spiritual self, and impressively enough that he stops being a know-it-all smart-ass and decides to go back to school.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say the biggest thing he learns is self-sacrifice (although if he has himself in a perpetual time-reset there's not much sacrifice) and it is amusing that he ultimately defeats the "Big Bad" by merely being annoying. But, other than that and milieu, it's fairly rote for a superhero movie. Ultimately, the only reason for having the movie is to reveal that one of the goo-gah's Strange luckily stumbles on* to get him out of scrapes contains an "Infinity stones", the "Macguffin" that Marvel has been teasing for the past (what?) five years now. Anything teased for too long tends to make that teased thing grumpy.

The film does benefit from Cumberbatch playing the lead, but though he hits his marks and does everything right, there's not a lot of inspiration to his performance (as we've come to expect). Maybe playing smart guys all the time makes you eventually run out of ideas. In any case, the performance reflects the film—uninspired by competent.
It's just not—dare I say it?—"magic."

* One of those is "The Cape of Somethingorother" which has the same anthropomorphic tendencies as inanimate objects in Disney cartoons. Oh, that's right Disney owns Marvel.

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