Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: "Doctor Strange"

“Doctor Strange” unwittingly serves as a good stress test on the state of the superhero genre as it approaches middle age. The thinking used to be that once you got past the A-list of heroes, the Spider-Mans and Captains America, it’s hard to get anyone more than fanboys to turn out. But with offbeat characters like Deadpool and the Guardians of the Galaxy turning into huge hits, it seems that as long as you deliver an entertaining flick, people will come.

This film takes one of the oddest, most cerebral comic books ever and turns it into a bubble gum movie. It’s breezy and kooky, featuring some of the landscape-bending special effects we saw in “Inception” and turning the dial up to 11. It mixes hallucinogenic imagery with standard action movie fisticuffs.

Dr. Stephen Strange doesn’t get bitten by a spider or bathed in mutating radiation; he’s just a regular guy who becomes a sorcerer, wielding mystic energies and magical items, who travels through different planes of existence to battle creatures of dark power.

It has the most talented cast you’ve ever seen in a superhero movie: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg.

The question becomes if the mystic mumbo-jumbo replete in the Doctor Strange oeuvre sounds any better coming out of the mouths of Oscar-caliber actors: “sling rings,” the dark lord Dormammu, astral projection, Sanctums Sanctorum, the Eye of Agamotto, etc.

The answer: Not really.

Cumberbatch brings a winking charisma to the role, a guy who’s basically good but is rather full of himself. He’s an a-hole, but an a-hole in the Tony Stark mold.

The movie is directed by Scott Derrickson, known mostly for horror films, who co-wrote the script with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. They take some pretty dark material, about an arrogant neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident, and continually fluff it up with humor and levity.

For instance, when Strange reaches the remote retreat of Kamar-Taj in Nepal, hoping to heal his hands, the unctuous guide, Mordo (Ejiofor) hands him a cryptic piece of paper with something scribbled on it. What is it? Strange asks. “The Wifi password. We’re not savages,” Mordo quips.

Strange is trained by the Ancient One, an Asian man in the comics but a bald Caucasian woman here played by Swinton. It’s still the typical inscrutable mentor, constantly pushing her pupil but supplying few answers about what’s really at stake.

Strange is … not very good at magic. And not just at first. When the big battle with the bad guy starts to happen, he’s still seemingly little more than a novice. His basic spells -- represented here as sigils written in fire -- fizzle out on him. But we’re supposed to believe he’s the guy to take on Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), a fallen sorcerer who wants to turn over the Earth to Dormammu and stop the flow of time?

You wonder in these movies why the “chosen one” is always a new guy. Shouldn’t it be the person who’s been honing their powers for a really long time? Wouldn’t the Ancient One’s time be better spent preparing for the final showdown instead of training some jerk doctor?

(I call this Yoda Conundrum -- as in, why would a Master send a half-trained Jedi to confront Darth Vader instead of taking him on himself?)

“Doctor Strange” is a fun movie but not a particularly smart one. It takes the easy road when it had the tools and the talent to be more ambitious. It features characters who wield mighty magic, but settles for storytelling parlor tricks.

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