Saturday, 5 November 2016

Doctor Strange 2016

This has been a 'strange' year for superhero films.

I'd personally not enjoyed any of them so far, whether it was Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice ('Martha?' 'Martha!') or Captain America: Civil War (really was Avengers Part 3, and was much worse than its Part 2) or X-Men: Apocalypse (best scene? Wolverine's 30-second cameo. Seiously!). I refused to watch TMNT (just not my thing) or Suicide Squad (come on! When everyone says that BvS was a masterpiece compared to it, you try to salvage your sanity and run in the opposite direction). This leaves only Deadpool as the saving grace this year, but that came out so long ago, and was such an atypical Marvel film (both in character and style) that I am not counting it in my list of 'superhero' films.

And then comes along Doctor Strange. There has been very little marketing for this film, at least in the UK, so it felt like it came out of nowhere. And due to my meagre knowledge of comics, I had not heard of this character before. So, without watching a trailer, and with a heavy heart from a year of disappointments, I went to see this film.

I don't know if it was the very low expectations, or if the film is actually well put together, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The premise, very simply, is that a genius, materialistic and arrogant surgeon, Dr Stephen Strange, meets with an accident (it's Marvel, of course there was an accident) that changes the direction of his life and leaves him with a maniacal desperation to get out of his hell-like situation. Enter the mysterious wisdoms of the Orient, or some other far away land called Kamar-Taj, that transform not only his physical abilities, but his way of thinking and his understanding of the world. Trained by Karl Mordo, a fellow student, and the Ancient One herself, Strange is armed with new skills and knowledge and finds himself embroiled in a battle against evil, namely Kaecilius, who was a former student but has now obviously lost his way. A requisite end-of-the-world battle, the revelation of the fifth Infinity Stone, and many wonderful special effects later, our unlikely hero accepts his lot in life and is all set for the next mission.

The visuals here remind me of Inception (2010), not so much for Wally Pfister's cinematography, but more for the special effects. Doctor Strange is filmed by Ben Davis, whose previous credits include a number of big budget Marvel films, and his work here is definitely worth mentioning. But it's the special effects that stand out as exceptional. The dialogue is mostly sharp and well-written. Without knowledge of the comic book character, the Doctor Strange on film reminded me repeatedly of Iron Man: the same arrogance, the same ascerbic wit, albeit with less of the continuous barrage. The screenplay and editing could have been improved ever so slightly, with maybe a shorter introduction to the character, and a longer period of transformation?

In terms of casting and performances, there are some amazing decisions here, but one very sore mistake. First, to cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One is nothing short of a stroke of genius - I can not imagine anyone doing that role better, and the director's reasoning to change this from a Tibetan male to a White female, to avoid all possible stereotypes, holds water. Benedict Wong as Wong and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, are both more than adequate in their performances. But it is Chiwetel Ejiofor who, once again, disappoints me beyond belief. I keep hoping that he will change his patented acting style, deliver lines or expressions with a slightly different nuance, but he is consistently a one-trick pony. As Mordo, there are moments where he shines, because those moments fall in line with his limited style. But his overly earnest delivery exhausted me by the end and I hoped so hard that he will not return in future instalments (no spoilers here, but I think I will not be granted my wish).

Anyhow, Benedict Cumberbatch more than makes up for any mistakes this film has. He is insanely watchable, commands every scene, even when his character is not in control of every situation, and he manages to bring a sweetness to the arrogance, as he has done many times before, with so many other characters. It helps that we have seen him play a genius many, many times in the past - and maybe he is being typecast - but in this case, I am glad of that as he brings a gravitas to the character and makes it thoroughly enjoyable.

But above all, it is the brilliant Cloak (yes with a capital C) that brings the audience most joy. It is the best thing about this film!

To surmise, this is very likely the only good superhero film of the year, so definitely worth watching to get rid of the awful taste of disappointment in your mouth.

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