Sunday, November 6, 2016

Marvel Watch: Doctor Strange (2016)

It's safe to say that Doctor Strange as a Marvel character has never been much in my wheelhouse.  As a kid, the comics always held a certain visual appeal, but I felt like the character was all mustache and cape, dealing with, yeah, world-threatening dilemmas, but always in that vague way of magical characters that didn't hold the immediate familiarity of "oh, Joker's going to kill all those people" or "Magneto is up to his old tricks."  I was pretty well into college before I embraced the abstraction of world-ending calamities on a metaphysical scale, mostly by way of Jack Kirby's 70's-era work and Grant Morrison's JLA.  But I still never drifted back to Doctor Strange over at Marvel.  I'd enjoy his guest appearances everywhere from Spider-Man to The Illuminati-type stuff, but didn't think it was something that needed to be in my monthly "buy" pile.

Really, the only Doctor Strange comics I ever purchased were back when the character was double-billing in Strange Tales with Cloak & Dagger, which I was picking up because I dug Cloak and Dagger.  Figuring out what the hell was going on with Stephen Strange, MD, wasn't particularly something I was losing sleep over.

But, the Marvel movies are, for me, an ideal way to engage with the Marvel U in a non-invested sort of way with stuff I was vaguely interested in, but didn't care to get too immersed in.  Starting with Iron Man and including everything from Thor and The Avengers to the current incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy in the comics, I prefer how these packages are presented in movie-form.*

Doctor Strange (2016) is - yes - another Marvel origin story.  This is both a reality and problem for Marvel as it rolls out it's ever-broadening line of characters in television and film, as the origins of these characters are, in fact, of great importance to establishing the characters and their motivations for films to come.  If not for Iron Man and Captain America as origin stories, how interesting would Civil War have been, really?  Or, hell, Winter Soldier?  DC Entertainment is finding out the hard way via Suicide Squad's terrible story problems that even an ensemble piece needs a bit more fleshing out.

For those of you who didn't grow up reading comics - Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon, but he's also developed a sense of self-importance and arrogance.  On a rainy night, he is an automobile accident during which his hands are crushed, leaving him with no ability to perform the sensitive surgeries that have earned him fame and fortune.  Desperate, he seeks a way to heal himself - any way to heal himself.  And winds up in Nepal where he meets a sect of mystics led by "The Ancient One", who teach him how to become a sorcerer.

In our film version, he also has a girlfriend (news to me that this wasn't Clea, the platinum haired wizard-lady I remember from the comics) and there's an evil wizard (Mads Mikkelsen) trying to bring about the end of the world by... well, it's evil.

Look, I didn't think much of the story of Doctor Strange, but I've felt that way about his origin since some time around 6th grade, so I was more than fine with that - you pay yer money to see Doctor Strange, you kinda hope to see Doctor Strange.  And, I'd argue, it was a bit hard to get a feeling for who, exactly, Doctor Strange is/ was/ what-have-you even by the end of the film.  I feel like they could have nailed down the character a bit better and had some better moments to really lock it down so, even if those moments had some cheese-factor.

But I actually liked Doctor Strange.   I didn't love it the way I did the Captain America films or Guardian of the Galaxy, but it was fun (for me.  I don't think Jamie liked it a whole lot.).  It was a mix of mystic juju with a sort of martial-arts training film with some spectacular visuals, including a part that looks for all the world like someone raided Spencer's Gifts black light posters and turned them into a gorgeously hideous transdimensional plane.

I've seen some criticism lately of the Marvel movies not taking themselves seriously, but I can't tell you how much I appreciated the lighter tone this movie took, which would have felt tedious and ponderous as a self-serious movie about wizards.  Maybe there's a gag or two in there I was like "now?  In the middle of all this - right now you're doing a Buster Keaton bit?", but it didn't exactly wreck anything for me.

The villains are properly villainous, the threat is universe-threatening, and our hero and his allies are properly charming and individual characters.  I particularly liked Wong cast as a librarian who will murder you for taking books without asking.  I suspect he will be very popular among my co-workers in short order.

It's impossible to avoid the question of whether Marvel was white-washing the cast of the movie by casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, a problem compounded with the fact that the foremost martial arts character of the Marvel U, Iron Fist, is a white-washed character from jump, and he's about to get a TV series.

Within the film - it is not illogical for The Ancient One to be a white woman.  It's made clear that the mystic training grounds attracts all sorts of people who are questing to repair themselves.  It's a sort of global destination for broken people with a drive to find a solution to what ails them, and we can assume that at one time, our filmic Ancient One was one of these people.  Further, we can be assured that had the movie stuck with the wrinkled old Asian guy as their Ancient One, the movie would have been criticized for co-opting culture at best and rolling out a racist stereotype at worst.  As per the Asian garb filled with White, Black and Asian folks in the film, it more or less makes sense as the uniform of a school, so your mileage here will vary.  I'll buy your argument if you also find the training scenes in Batman Begins racist, I guess, or at least know what your threshhold is for white writers writing about white guys going off to learn cool stuff in hidden-away monastery type places.

Look - I'm not going to defend the movie one way or another and I'm not going to tell someone they can't be offended.  I'm also not sure the criticisms lobbed at the movie were entirely fair, but I also don't believe that Marvel is doing all it can for Asian, Hispanic and Black audiences to get fair representation and this doesn't really take them forward in that respect.  I can also see why they wanted to add a woman to a cast that was extremely male, and Marvel is otherwise making slow progress in addressing the lack of female characters in non-girlfriend roles in their feature films (Captain Marvel is still 2.5- 3 years off).

So, what did I like?  A big draw for this film is the immersive experience of watching Doctor Strange and Co. bend time and space with, yes, Inception-like FX, but also the casual bending of reality happening second by second as the film went along.  It also doesn't hurt to see it in 3D where the flow of space folds around the viewer, the Escher-esque perspective changes take on terrific new dimensions, and you never really know what the next sequence might provide as far as imaginative reality bending.

But it's not just the FX - because we have seen those before in various forms.  The management of reality as pliable stuff that can be reconstituted and manipulated, the spells the understanding of source code of reality- that was the fun part for me.  There are ground rules in there somewhere, and the movie doesn't just say "oh, and magic.  Poof!"  It feels like it has an underlying logic, even when it's not fully spelled out (which would have been painful.  Also - did you see what I did there?).  Keeping up with what's possible and how each thing or person seems to work is it's own bit of fun.

Enter into the film with your expectations set to Ant-Man, and I think you'll find it's probably more imaginative than that movie, but also less fun (I mean, less funny, certainly).  It's certainly not as cynical or cynically produced as DC's offerings, but it's also hard to say that Marvel is able to break new ground with it's origin stories when we've seen what they can do with the richer tapestry of the shared DCU and when they can build on what they've created previously.  And that's okay.  You gotta start somewhere.

As per a trip out to the movies, it's an okay time, but not revelatory and it's deeply unlikely you're going to see little kids dressed up as Doctor Strange next Halloween.  Just try to see it in 3D.

*Marvel was my jam when it came to X-Men, Cap, Black Panther and especially Spidey, but these days it's down to Cap(s) and Black Panther.  I can't even wrap my head around what's been going on with Spidey the past decade, but it has it's fans.


Stuart said...

"Spelled out." Good one.


The League said...

Thank you! Tip your waitstaff!

Anonymous said...

Solid review. It was a lot of fun and I thought kept mumbo jumbo with the right amount of consistency. In this it recalled "Thor" which, while punctuated with laughter and that billion dollar Hemsworth smile was made all the more endearing for it. Seeing Strange and Thor sharing a drink at the end having a genuinely fun time with one another made me appreciate how much fun a stick-in-the-mud can be when paired with another with just enough of a light touch. I hope those two have something fun in this iteration of the MCU master plan.

Jake Shore said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this. I wish I had seen it in 3-D. I usually have to see a movie twice to give a sober review of it, but I thought this was easily in the upper 1/3rd of Marvel U movies. Despite the standard origin story structure, the feel was different enough for me look past it.

In terms of the comics, I always liked the idea of Doctor Strange, and I always enjoyed his cameos in Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Silver Surfer and other comics I read. By the way, how cool would it be to make a Defenders movie? Maybe the coolest/craziest superhero team of all time: Hulk, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange and the Sub-Mariner! I need to check and see if Marvel has revisited that comic, because the very idea is pure gold. Anyway, as far as his own comic, I tried reading a few here and there and just never found a way in. Maybe I just haven't looked at the right ones.

Jake Shore said...

As far as the Ancient One goes, this kind of stuff just bugs me. My attitude toward this stuff generally is, "Hey, if it works, it works." But if you're going to make a big departure from canon, do it for the right reasons. Going back to the controversy regarding Idris Elba's casting as Heimdall, I initially was scratching my head given the nature of Norse mythology. But I also knew, even in the comics, Thor and his Asgardian friends were basically aliens, not literally gods. But as soon as I saw Idris Elba on screen, I was like, "Oh, he rocks," And that was it. He WAS Heimdall. In my opinion, diversity is good, but I'm generally not a "diversity for the sake of diversity" person when it comes to writing. I think the story should always, no exceptions, come first. If you try to force an agenda into your writing, it's usually at the expense of you're writing, particularly if your agenda is the story.

So going into Dr. Strange and the gnashing of teeth over the casting of the Ancient One, my problem was not necessarily casting a white woman to play a character originally written as an old Asian guy. My problem was the explanation for the change offered by Marvel and the film's screenwriter, that the original concept of the Ancient One is a "racist stereotype." Really? A master of ancient arts living in Tibet is racist because he's an old Asian guy? Someone should tell the filmmakers in Hong Kong who have been perpetuating that stereotype in their movies since the 1970s. Should I not let my kids watch Karate Kid? Should the Black Panther have been played by a Native American out of concern for harmful black stereotypes? Why should we ASSUME Peter Parker is raised by his aunt and uncle. Wouldn't it be better, more interesting, more inclusive if Aunt May and her lover, Betty Brant raised our favorite webslinger? Come on.

And of course, as you say, to counter such stereotypes, we should cast WHITE people to play ethnic roles! Whatever.

Having said all that. Ultimately, I didn't care because Tilda Swinton was awesome. I would rather the filmmakers just say they made a creative change they feel will serve the story better, or that they just felt that Tilda Swinton, who really has an otherworldy look to her, was perfect for the role. I generally dislike, out of respect for the original creators, making such changes but if it's in service to the story rather than misplaced racial politics, I can live with it.

My biggest objection to such a change was the latest Fantastic Four dumpster fire in which they cast an African American guy to play Johnny Storm. Now, in fairness I have to say a) I haven't seen the movie and b) ultimately it didn't matter since it was such a flop no one saw it. But in principle, this change to Johnny Storm's ethnicity significantly alters the character into someone different. Johnny Storm, at least initially, is a young spoiled, rich, entitled white kid. I think that is essential to an understanding of his character, and key to his growth and maturation. Why change it? Because the Fantastic Four isn't diverse enough for Hollywood today? How about creating great, diverse new characters rather changing old ones to suit modern versions of conformity? Just a thought.