My favorite movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far have been the ones that don’t feel like standard-issue superhero movies. The Avengers was basic, and Avengers: Age of Ultron was a bigger, dumber, basic-er redux of the first film. Give me superhero movies that avoid blandness--I ordered tea, not hot water.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier borrowed the feel of paranoid 70s thrillers and the Bourne films to craft its own story of high ideals, conspiracies, and disillusionment. Guardians of the Galaxy had a happy-go-lucky Goonies-in-space vibe rooted in misfit loners building a family. And while it’s a Fox property rather than an MCU movie, I think Logan looks way more interesting than anything in the X-Men franchise thus far precisely because it doesn’t look like a dumb old X-Men movie.
That may be why I was pleasantly surprised by Doctor Strange. It’s less of a superhero movie and more of a psychedelic kung fu movie.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Release Date: October 25, 2016 (UK); November 4, 2016 (US)
There’s a philosophical template to many martial arts stories: an arrogant, inherently talented person becomes an unruly disciple to wise master, trains in a martial art, confronts their weaknesses (typically the ego), and unlocks their better self through discipline and mastery. Many times the student will surpass their master through an act of invention--combining or creating fighting styles, for instance, constructing a new weapon, or some higher-level use of the imagination.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch doing his Benedict Cumberbatch shtick) starts the movie as a hotshot neurosurgeon who’s fame-obsessed and failure-averse. A near-fatal car accident causes severe nerve damage to his hands. He’s got the shakes now. That’s the end his lucrative career. Strange hears rumors of a monastery in Nepal that may be able to heal him. He travels to the east where he gets thrown into a world of sorcery, one at war with a former student named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Like most Marvel villains, Kaecilius is sort of a non-entity--just a bad guy doing bad guy things.
Tilda Swinton plays The Ancient One, the master of the monastery who teaches Strange the ways of sorcery and opens his eyes to the world and its possibility. Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) offers an assist as a trainer, emphasizing strength and force. The only top-billed Asian actor is Benedict Wong who plays the stoic keeper of the arcane library. There’s been a lot written in the last few months about the whitewashing of The Ancient One. I also foresee a lot of thinkpieces about cultural appropriation given how much of the movie feels like a kung fu film. I wasn’t bothered by any of this, but everyone’s mileage varies. There’s enough that works in the film for me, and I think Swinton’s air of otherworldliness and oddness fits with her character.
When Doctor Strange is at its best, it’s a fast-paced martial arts adventure that fills the screen with Escheresque imagery. Some moments have the vertiginous feel of Christopher Nolan’s Inception or the finale of Interstellar, and others remind me a little of Alex Proyas’ Dark City. There’s an exhilirating chase through New York City streets in flux, where buildings and roads become a maddened, tilting, shifting clockwork world. When not spinning mandalas and fractals on screen, Doctor Strange recreates the blacklight psychedelia of Steve Ditko’s comic book art. Director Scott Derrickson gives Doctor Strange its own visual grammar to differentiate it from the rest of the MCU. The film even finds a cool way of marrying the martial arts, the somatic components of spells, and the way magic manifests itself on screen.
Unfortunately, Doctor Strange is a martial arts movie with badly shot fight scenes. The magic battles and traditional action is competent, allowing viewers to follow the actors on screen as the mirror-like gears of reality spin around them. Yet aside from one satisfying and inventive battle of astral projected forms (!), the fights are shot close up and with shaky cam, obscuring the choreography. It’s a waste of Scott Adkins, who plays one of Kaecilius’ goons. For all the philosophical lessons taken from Shaw Brothers movies, Doctor Strange ignores the practical lessons of quintessential Shaw Brothers directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. Derrickson could have easily pulled his camera back, kept it steady, and allowed the performer’s in-camera movements and rhythms to define his shots and the editing. Characters in martial arts movies communicate who they are through their fighting style, and so action filmmakers should allow their characters to describe themselves in combat.
And of course there’s a not-too-good romance subplot between Strange and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). It’s there, it’s not particularly engaging, and it’s short enough. McAdams isn’t given much to do, and there’s not much reason to feel anything between Chrinstine and Strange. What is it about perfunctory love in movies? Does six minutes of a sketched romance really matter much? Platonic on-screen relationships are more satisfying than a forced romance, and they tend to be more dynamic. Stop trying to make romance subplots happen--it’s not going to happen.
Strange, The Ancient One, and Kacelius are so obsessed with time, its limits, and how it can be used. It drives their search for power. And on that note I felt like Doctor Strange could have benefited from an additional 10 minutes. (Maybe they could have shaved off some of that love stuff.) So much of this world is built up and breezed through that there’s little time to breathe it in and appreciate what’s there. Perhaps they wanted to keep the movie just under two hours, and yet that 10 minutes of breathing room could have opened things up a bit more. There’s a major action sequence before the film’s finale that occurs off-camera, which was a wasted opportunity for a classic martial arts set piece. Then again, given how they filmed the rest of the fight scenes, maybe it’s for the best.
There’s a surprisingly good breather in the film between The Ancient One and Strange. The Ancient One ruminates as Strange listens, and the world around them achieves a gorgeous stillness. It’s an unexpectedly thoughtful moment in the movie, thematically tied to characters and the overarching story and yet its own thing. Punching robots is fine, I guess, but I wouldn’t mind more movies like Doctor Strange in the MCU. Good tea.