More noise than signal

Doctor Strange

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

This is the sixteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe era, which is a triumph of quantity over reason. Even as perhaps the guy on this podcast most open to these films, Marvel Studios was hitting at about a 33% hit rate with me, so I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence that Doctor Strange, or as he’s known to millions, “Who?”, would be any good. But, in general, I prefer the quirkier outings to the ‘mainstream’ entries, and the trailer certainly looks quirky. Let’s see what lurks beneath.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange is the world’s best brain surgeon, and won’t let you forget about it. Dunno why he’s so proud, it’s not rocket science or anything. After a period of early running where he does almost too good a job of being an egotistical prick, given that he’s nominally the hero of the film, the halfwit gets into a car wreck after consulting his phone while speeding. Go, team karma.

His life is saved, in part thanks to the work of Emergency Room doctor and ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but his precious, precious hands are ruined – crushed and rebuilt with steel pins, certainly ending his surgery career, and possibly his “holding things in general” career. He spends all of his cash exhausting Western medical knowledge, before word reaches him of a possible cure in the Far East. Desperate, off he treks to Nepal in search of “Kamar-Taj”, whatever that is.

He’s distressed to find that it’s a compound for learning the mystical arts of magic, headed by Sourcerer Supreme, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), charged with defending the Earth from bad magic and that. After a suitable period of disbelief, he accepts this new reality and proves to be a gifted, if still conceited student, prone to questioning much and looking for powerful spells that are off-limits to the novices. This troubles Anchy, as I think I’ll call her, and her right hand man Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as it reminds them of former student gone rogue Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was turned to the dark side or some such nonsense.

He and a few goons are now working to merge our world with Dormammu and his Dark Dimension, who I think got to number eight in the charts in 1973 with “Baby I Want Your Love Thang”. Dormammu’s some sort of extra-dimensional entity who seems to be trying to unite the world in the timelessness of death, which for reasons not completely clear Kaecilius thinks is close enough to immortality for him, because I suppose he’s a damned idiot or something, I dunno. At any rate, he’s trying to bring about the end of all things, and Strange and co have to stop him via the dual mediums of chop-sockey and reality-warping CG.

It is, on any examination at all, total nonsense, but it’s a very fun film, aided greatly by the quality of the cast that they’ve attracted – probably the best yet for Marvel Studios, and Cumblebundle, Swinton, Ejiofor, Mikkelsen, and most of the supporting cast play blinders. Only Rachel McAdams is wasted due to a wildly underwritten role, but as a whole the cast provide a substantial elevation of the slight source material.

We’ve sat around this podcast bemoaning comic book adaptations that devolve into one group of CG assets punching another group of CG assets until the credits roll, and sections of Doctor Strange head in that direction, but at least it has the sense to use its CG budget to produce something visually distinctive and more or less original, if we pretend Inception didn’t exist. For once this makes the action scenes interesting, and indeed the whole film has an appealing and individual style.

It’s also pretty funny too, channeling the goofiness of the Ant-Man film and not taking itself particularly seriously, which, given the subject matter, is definitely a good thing. In fact, it’s only when it does make an attempt to be taken seriously it falls flat – Strange’s response to his injuries is a bit narmy, sure, but worse is when Ejiofor’s Mordo starts moralising on the use of magic, partly as a set up to him becoming a villain for further instalments, because it makes no sense. “The bill comes due”, he keeps saying, but it manifestly doesn’t, for anyone, at any point in the film. He becomes disgusted that Anchy is syphoning off energy from the Dark Dimension to grant her the sort of longevity that leads to you becoming called The Ancient One, but there appears to be no downside to anyone due to this, so I’m left wondering quite what Mordo’s problem is. Perhaps that’s a story for another day, but if so, maybe don’t put it in this one?

At any rate, I’m just glad they’ve finally managed to work an Abbot and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine variant into a multi-million dollar effects extravaganza. Easily eleventy million times better than the turgid thief of time that was Civil War, and perhaps the most enjoyable tentpole of the year – not, sadly, that this is saying a great deal. Recommended.