People are strange, movies are stranger, says Tony, pulling on his Cloak of Reviewingness.
For a man who once declared he didn’t want to be Doctor Who because he ‘didn’t want to be on a lunchbox,’ Benedict Cumberbatch has had an odd career of late. Taking the lead in the admittedly surprise hit Sherlock, then squaring up against the – ahem - new original Trekkies as Khan, and now taking the lead in Marvel’s oddest superhero movie to date. Yes, including the one with the space racoon and the talking tree.
Of course, up till now, there’s a convincing case to be made for the fact that high-profile roles in big geeky productions is both how you pay the bills so you can go off and be Frankenstein on stage for a while, or give your Hamlet, and how you rise to the top of some casting directors’ lists when it comes to playing awkward English geniuses, but in taking on the role of Dr Stephen Strange, Cumberbatch is going into a whole new level of crazy territory. The lunchbox has well and truly landed.
It's fair to say that for the first narrative act of the movie, Cumberbatch appears to be playing Strange somewhere between Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark and another Brit-doing-an-American-accent curmudgeon, Hugh Laurie’s Dr Gregory House. The character is part squillionaire egotist, part insanely brilliant neurosurgeon, and pretty much all self-consumed asshole.
Not to suggest for a second that this is a bad thing – clearly from the existence and popularity of Tony Stark, Greg House and Donald Trump, something in the viewing public’s heart loves a squillionaire egotist asshole, and Cumberbatch’s Strange is an honourable addition to the gang, being charming while everything goes his way, though bitching about the idiocy of people who are probably also brilliant, just less brilliant than him, and generally cruising through life, rejecting cases that are beneath his interest-level.
Then his life goes off a cliff, his hands are ruined, and delicate neurosurgery is beyond him, seemingly forever. The tower on which Strange has built his monumental ego collapses, and we see rather more House in the man, lashing out at the little people who aren’t so little, giving them his unkind ‘truth’ just because he can.
So far, so entertaining. The movie deals with Strange’s ‘ordinary’ life well, and packs it off into the past within the first third of the run-time. The other two thirds, the thirds that chronicle his rise to the position of ‘sorceror supreme’…
Welllll, that’s where things get a little more problematic.
Firstly, the visuals of the trademark magic in this movie are trippy even in 2D. In 3D, you may lose some lunch as buildings and worlds fold in on each other like cogs in clockwork, and characters leap from one floor level to a wall that becomes the new floor, and then do it again, and again. They’re trippy and cool and a comic-book fan’s dream, but as the movie unfolds, they become old pretty fast, and what’s more, they become a little wearisome, giving a sense of ‘Oh look, he’s waved his hand…annnnd we’re off.’ Yes, absolutely, it establishes Doctor Strange as a different kind of superhero to the Avengers, and gives the movie its own distinctive visual style, but at the point where it becomes for the audience a case of ‘Insert effects here,’ you’re starting to lose the battle for hearts and minds.
There are points along Strange’s journey that are underwritten too – having spoken to a man who came back from an injury that he shouldn’t have been able to recover from, Strange travels to the Kamar-Taj compound in Kathmandu to talk to The Ancient One and is admitted to see Bald Tilda Swinton. She gives him tea and then sends him on an expensive effect-filled few minutes’ travelling through the multiverse, after which the rationalist, materialistic neurosurgeon begs that she ‘teach him’ about the power she has. It’s all just a little too easy – it becomes clear that he retains some of his ego and scepticism, but there’s not enough of him demanding rational answers here to show the mental journey from ‘What was in that tea?’ to ‘Teach me.’ In a similar way, there’s not enough failure in his journey either – a little something is made of his being worse than many other students, and there’s a funny scene which shows him conquering his ego enough to at least make some progress, but there feels like a lack of Strange falling on his ass as his ego propels him and the magical universe pulls the rug from under him to teach him humility. It feels like this should be there because his journey seems to be from arch-rationalist to sorcerer supreme, and with a quick line about his having a photographic memory and a couple of funny scenes where he reads voraciously from the mystical library of Kamar-Taj, the journey is only sketched in. Yes, training montages are dull, but occasionally they serve a purpose – to show progress over time. Here, instead, there seems to be Useless Strange and Highly Proficient Strange, with little in between bar those library scenes.
And let’s make one thing clear – the run-up to the climactic scene will annoy the bejesus out of some people, being not so much a reset button as a giant rewind that doesn’t need to be there. If, say, your heroes get there just in the nick of time, everything’s to play for and the tension is high. If your heroes get there, as they do in this movie, just after the nick of time, what you’re left with is a giant rewind that eats up effects budget and looks awfully pretty, but destroys the notion of consequences – every time you lose, you can just rewind, meaning you lose audience investment and everything unfolds with a certain disappointing inevitability.
But if all this makes it sound like Doctor Strange is a flop, that’s the wrong impression. For all his arrogance, there’s something about Strange that’s inherently likeable – and most of that comes from Cumberbatch’s performance. When he gets his Cloak of Levitation, things brighten up a lot – a question for the uninitiated going in was why he’d suddenly start wearing a cloak, and here it’s explained gloriously, the cloak becoming pretty much his version of Aladdin’s magic carpet, with a personality all of its own.
Tilda Swinton incurred the wrath of some fanboys for the monumental crime of being cast as The Ancient One, but for viewers coming fresh to the cinematic Doctor Strange, she’s exceptional – a combination of grounded humour and kickassery that makes sense within the constructs of the movie. Mads Mikkelsen as Junior Bad Kaecilius has much more fun in this movie than, say, he had in Casino Royale up against Bond. There are props to spare for Benedict Wong too, as librarian Wong at Kamar-Taj. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as The Ancient One’s right hand man Karl Mordo, feels oddly joyless and stolid though – possibly an effective character choice for him going forward, but still, it makes him feel like he’s mostly there to dispense plot-advancing dialogue this time out. Rachel McAdams, for her money, makes Christine Palmer, Strange’s pre-sorceror pal-cum-sexual-tension-sharer, one of the more reliably human, funny, warm and enjoyable characters in the movie, never lacking an ‘Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me’ to keep us on her side when Strange’s world goes sorcerortastic.
The fight scenes between Strange and Kaecilius and his acolytes are frequently extremely odd, and a pop-back to his old life to get healed and despatch one such acolyte involves quite a bit of running around with exposition on tap, meaning it’s in later fight sequences that the world-folding effects really start to get tired. But there’s a distinct treat at the film’s conclusion – for those who always wanted Cumberbatch to be Doctor Who, his confrontation with Big Bad Dormammu here is probably as close as you’re ever going to get – there’s cleverness, there’s comedy, there’s an endless, perpetual capacity for self-sacrifice to save others and there’s fun with time loops. It’s a gloriously Pertweean ending and it actually pays off the still-underwritten journey of Strange from egocentric to sorcerer supreme, leaving us with the sense that, by virtue of that confrontation if nothing else, he’s proved he’s finally worthy of the title.
Doctor Strange was always going to be an odd proposition as a movie – its oddness is baked right in to its concept as one of a couple of sideways steps for Marvel comic-books (Ghost Rider being the other immediately contemporary one). What Marvel has delivered is a movie that works hard to establish that oddness, that separation from the Iron Man world of bombs and bullets and high-tech cleverness, and succeeds at that. The origin story of Strange the Sorceror still feels underbaked and underwritten, but he gains his place in the superhero world through the movie’s conclusion, and is now ready for new challenges.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk