November 3, 2016

CINEMA | Marvel Gets Mystical – 'Doctor Strange'

"I could have done better!"
Benedict Cumberbatch Scott Derrickson | Marvel's Doctor Strange

Marvel Studios travels to the mystical realm for their fourteenth entry and latest superhero origin story. Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a superficially alternate version of the Tony Stark/Iron Man archetype as the titular Doctor heads to Asia in order to learn Eastern magic and mysticism to become his own kind of hero after a horrific accident leaves him at his lowest.

Derrickson uses truly stellar and dazzling CGI effects and Inception style, building/folding visuals to execute alternate dimensions and get across his trippy, mind-bending storytelling on screen. Quick to start, the first half is pure standard Marvel origin story with a rapid establishment of an arrogant, ego-driven genius fallen from grace, looking to redeem himself, and save others. Slowly, the film, co-written by C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts, gets very weird, very fast with journeys in alternate planes of realities and multiverses represented by stunning, colourful images.

Cumberbatch, saddled with a very generic American accent, is serviceable and amusing as the brilliant surgeon turned sorcerer. However, it's Tilda Swinton's portrayal as the supremely powerful the Ancient One—an apparently Celtic master, changed from a Tibetan man reeking of Oriental stereotypes in the comics—teaching Asian mysticism in Kathmandu that anchors the film. Swinton gives a truly exhilarating, warrior performance yet it's still incredibly distracting seeing almost no people of Asian descent execute any of these Eastern cultural practices on screen.

Benedict Cumberbatch Scott Derrickson | Marvel's Doctor Strange

The character of Dr. Stephen Strange suffers from elements of the white saviour stereotype as a man seeking enlightenment who masters foreign powers and skills for his own selfish purposes almost instantly before answering a call to action and hero's journey. Both Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong get little to do as plot motivated sidekicks, a fellow doctor companion and wise librarian, who often serve and emotional and comedic foils to Cumberbatch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is subtle as the film's quiet MVP playing another disciple with a much more conflicted moral nature while teasing his character's future path. Marvel famously suffers from a villain problem and Mads Mikkelsen does his best to break that trend as the underserved Kaecilius, a former student who goes rogue, trying to master the dark arts for his own eternal power. He isn't given much aside from an unseen backstory but makes an admirable physical foe to Strange and the Ancient One.

Doctor Strange is mostly fun and visually inventive, despite a rushed narrative, benefiting from the positives of the Marvel machine while still more or less adhering to an overly familiar story. However, its appropriation of so many Eastern and Asian elements by mostly white European and American filmmakers remains incredibly problematic. Nonetheless, the film remains an undeniable spectacle that goes to weird, unusually trippy places yet still remaining firmly grounded in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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