dir: Scott Derrickson
Sometimes just letting me see trippy visuals is enough. More than enough. That’s all I’m asking for, sometimes.
Really, I’m that cheap a date.
I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy this as much as I did, but that’s because mostly I think my decision-making abilities have taken a hit in the last couple of weeks. When presented with the option of watching Arrival, that new, apparently thoughtful and uplifting science fiction film starring Amy Adams, or Doctor Strange, Marvel’s latest attempt to absorb the entirety of the world’s money, I chose the path of least intellectual requirement.
Yep, I had the choice of watching something emotionally engaging and intellectually satisfying, and something that looked cool and trippy, and I essentially opted, or at least argued in favour of the Happy Meal option.
Why? Well, I could wax rhapsodically about the actual darkness that has started spreading across the world, and how at the moment I just don’t have it in me to engage intellectually or hopefully with anything right now. I just can’t even, as the lazy phrase goes. It’ll come back, because it has to, but for now I just can’t goddamn stomach anything that requires me to think or feel too much about anything.
Marvel’s ongoing production line of movies perfectly fills that void. By watching any of their movies, I’m not guaranteed a thoughtful or complex experience, but I am guaranteed at least a couple of hours of people doing some colourful stuff with lots of CGI all over the place, and a tidy, if not pat, resolution, with a teaser as to what the next bloody story is going to be, making you feel like a fool for bothering to watch this placeholder.
In that sense, and in many others, Doctor Strange is pretty much exactly the same as every other Marvel movie. Everything probably ties into everything else so that at some point virtually everyone will end up in a future Avengers film.
Andy Warhol famously quipped that everyone would eventually get their fifteen minutes of fame, but what that freakish clod got horribly wrong is that absolutely everyone in the world would eventually be a superhero in a Marvel flick one day.
I haven’t had my call yet, but I know it’s coming soon. I’d happily play one of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s sidekicks, but I’m not holding my breath just yet. The sheer quantity of money Marvel has made for Disney over the last decade or so has empowered them to look through the entirety of their comic back catalogue and say, out loud or just to themselves “Damn, the public will watch anything we put out as long as there’s a hint they might see a few seconds of a shirtless Hemsworth”.
So something as unlikely as a Doctor Strange movie, about a man who’s a robe wearing wizard (and this is the year of our Lord 2016), with a main character played by a bald Tilda Swinton, can get a guernsey, no questions asked.
That’s freedom, of a sort. Of course, the whole package has to follow a highly recognisable course (of course of course because we’re still talking about a movie requiring a budget in the hundreds of millions), but it’s (slightly) different enough to seem exciting and new. Or should that be ‘new’.
The hero’s journey requires someone who acts like a prat but is brilliant at something having something bad happen to them, which then requires them to go on a literal journey. Have a guess if that happens here.
Dr Steven Strange, which happens to be his actual character’s surname, only likes really difficult medical cases where he can show off brazenly and take risks others wouldn’t dream of, in a really dismissive and maximally arrogant way. This is why you employee Eggs Benedict Cucumberpatch in the first place. He exudes cold arrogance and Olympian disdain the way I exude the smell of whisky and cigarettes on any given weekend. Sure, it’s an assault on the senses, but it’s also kind of comforting.
Cumberbatch has mastered the cold, unblinking stare like few others working today, and he can make it work whether he’s playing Sherlock, Shylock or a warlock. Didn’t work so well in Star Trek Into Darkness, but let’s not mention the war.
No, really, when a person and a character are so lofty and above the rest of humanity, well, all that can possibly be coming down the track is a major fall. When it happens, my partner turned to me and hissed “Hubris!” as the cause of his downfall, and she was certainly right.
With shattered hands and an inability to do the one thing that makes him feel superior to all of humanity, it’s up to a bald headed Scottish woman in saffron robes called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to tap him hard enough that he flies through dimensions in time and space in order to realise how insignificant he (currently) is in the multiverse’s scheme of things.
Of course, he has to be convinced that he is insignificant in order to become so powerful that he becomes REALLY significant and all of Creation depends upon his actions.
How great is the scene where he hurriedly gets a guided tour through the cosmos! How sublime and insane the visuals become. We’ve already seen some visuals at the beginning that kind of take the cityscape-bending stuff some of us remember as the only memorable element of Inception and bump it up a few notches. Cities fold and bend like the most surrealist/Cubist images that, had they been able to ever sit together and watch this, would have made Picasso stuff Salvador Dali into his own mouth in order to stop himself from screaming.
There is an earthly villain (the great Dane Mads Mikkelsen), who’s really not that interesting, have to say, but it’s always wonderful seeing him in anything, but there’s also a monstrous ‘entity’ out there waiting for a chance to eat up our entire planet called Dormammu (voiced by Eggs Benedict Cucumberbatch-patch and yes I am going to keep making this lame joke because it delights me: it’s what we always call him at home whenever he appears on the telly – makers of Gogglebox take note!).
It’s kinda scary to think of a scenario where the only thing stopping an evil god-like being from consuming us all is a bunch of people wearing clothes the Jedi would reject for being too fancy pants, and Tilda’s bald head. It’s even more scary to be confronted with the premise that it’s actually in the end going to be a guy called Benedict who has to stop our inter-dimensional arses being scorched in the eternal fires of hell through magic and making things appear out of hats and stuff.
Action-wise it’s entertaining enough, I guess (it’s fine, it’s just that it isn’t the reason I’m watching). The only two characters that really matter are Strange and the Ancient One, and, look, I’m not that critical when Tilda is involved in anything. For me she gets a free pass for like, and she has to be uniquely terrible in a uniquely terrible flick for me to not immediately think it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.
She’s wonderful in this role. She’s like the Dalai Lama, but even wiser and even more human, yet otherworldly. She sells certain scenes, like a frozen moment in time at a hospital as life hangs in the balance, that few other actors could have carried off, I reckon. Still, there is a lot of action in the flick, and they clearly made a concerted effort to bring us a distinct variation on the kinds of action we’ve come to expect from Marvel flicks. It’s not just people punching stuff, or shooting stuff. Sometimes it involves someone trying to use a defibrillator to kill their opponent, or opening a portal that leaves their enemy in a desert or on a mountaintop.
And the final confrontation with Dormammu? Maybe it came across as somewhat less that satisfying or cathartic, because we’ve been programmed to expect (and be bored by) an escalating crescendo of explosions and buildings falling and then a big explosion, but I for one applaud the strange catastrophe-in-reverse and bargaining that punctuates the climax of this flick. It’s kinda clever. I liked it.
It maybe seems like the cookie cutter factory is only going to pump out cookies cut to factory specs, but I appreciate that they did enough to make this different (enough) for me to enjoy it. Visually it’s a total trip and I still feel a touch of brain damage from some of those visual twists. It’s sublime looking, mandalas and all, visuals bent, spindled and broken into new configurations, and while there’s not much of a case for the necessity of a sequel (which they’ll do anyway), I am curious to see what’s next for this enigmatic chap. He has more of a relationship with his wardrobe than he does with any other humans in this flick (which is understandable, because no-one is as wonderful as he is), but that’s okay too. He’s all about the magic, you see, and people are going to have to come a distant second.
But as long as he’s protecting us from evil dimensions that want to eat us whole, then we should be grateful that this otter-faced freak is on our side.
8 times I’ve had the same kind of fight with an article of clothing yet no dark magic was involved and I still lost the fight out of 10
“I do not seek to rule this world. I seek to destroy it.” – that’s apparently all you need to say these days to become president, as well – Doctor Strange.