I’m not very well read on Doctor Strange as bigger fans (ie. I know his story and mythology, but I never ever picked up a comic book where he headlined. It is one of the few comic books where my knowledge comes solely from wikipedia or other comic appearances) and so I don’t know the extent to which Doctor Strange’s famous red Cloak of Levitation has a sentient life of its own in the comics and I feel even if it did, it would not be with the clearly Disney-esque personality they gave it here in the newest installment of the MCU. The Cloak plays the same role in Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role) path as the Magic Carpet in Aladdin and certainly feels just as much a product of Disney’s buying into Marvel as Ty Simpkins’ character in Iron Man 3. Regardless, the cloak is very much a character in its own right, absolutely one of the most lovable and enjoyable on-screen, and one of several impressive works of visual effects in the best effects-extravaganza ever released in a franchise that’s constantly tried to be an effects-extravaganza powerhouse. That pretty much is a good sum-up of my attitude on Doctor Strange as a film. Not to say this hurts the film when Ted and Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Life of Pi and The Jungle Book and The Lord of the Rings all pull this off as well without being a mark against them, but yes. Potentially my favorite character in the film is just another one of the many special effects.
After all, that was obvious from the moment Doctor Strange‘s trailer came out that its special effects were the name of the game and it’s absolutely dazzling and outstanding effects, make no mistake. Effects so damn good I whispered to my girlfriend during the most shameless yet absolutely fun homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite scene “maybe we should have caught this movie in 3D”. Effects that can still manage to supersede Ben Davis’ kind of underlit photography to fill scenes with color and shape (especially in fractal form that cut into the image) that – while it’s nothing that absolutely breaks the ceiling – keep things fun and dare I say even immersive at moments. I don’t want to go 100 on that last part because one of the problems with Doctor Strange in the end is that it feels like Inception as directed by someone who is not Christopher Nolan. Scott Derrickson doesn’t really know how to keep a grip on where Strange and other characters relative to each other when the world starts bending and that becomes absolutely bothersome in one of the setpieces, a chase through a four-dimensional New York where the point is to make sure that villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in a thankless role whose main arc is given a monologue to another character) is far away and see how close he is to catching Strange and Derrickson doesn’t seem to know how to shoot a chase for that matter.
This is however easily Derrickson’s best work otherwise and I know that’s kind of faint praise for the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us from Evil, but it’s praise nonetheless. He’s not overall bad, he keeps things in rolling and moving once the effects start a-showin’ up, there’s a pretty fantastic astral fight between Cumberbatch and Scott Adkins that isn’t Gareth Evans here but is a great amount of fun. The anti-climax to the film is a fantastic comic bit of repetition that also lends itself to some creatively violent moments in the MCU. And of course there’s also that lovable cape.
But I said things are rolling and moving once the effects start showing up and that’s another big problem with me and Doctor Strange. I didn’t stopwatch the movie obviously, but I can’t imagine it was any longer than 45 minutes that passed before the movie’s best sequence – that very same 2001 homage – showed up to show Strange and the audience what’s what, yet it felt like it took an agonizing hour for me. Part of this is because Cumberbatch makes no effort to have this performance prove to me he’s worth all the hype he’s given. The script by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Derrickson clearly sets the character up to be arrogant and intolerable in all the same ways Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is and yet the difference here is that where Downey Jr. knows how to turn his sarcasm and wit to charm, Cumberbatch really ups the despicability and nastiness of Strange as a person to 11. I’m sure it’s deliberate and yet it’s a miscalculation (like, Ben, this isn’t an HBO series) and it very quickly gets to a point that I don’t like the guy and can’t be even slightly sorry for the severe damage to his hands early in the film that kickstarts his search for the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her (I’d like to say “it” as a celestial being but the movie refers to “her”) potential in making his hands suitable to be the great surgeon he once was.
And with the Ancient One means kind of dealing with an elephant in the room… the white-washing of the Ancient One from a Tibetan old man to a Celtic woman portrayed by Swinton. To be frank, it’s extremely obvious the change was deliberately to avoid crossing China, no matter what the filmmakers say. It’s bothersome and problematic and the filmmakers attempts to off-set this are gaggingly awful – by including Chiwetel Ejiofor
playing the same damn fundamentalist character he played in Serenity in the role of Strange’s future nemesis Mordo (who also has the utterly tasteless line that they’re “not savages” because they have wi-fi) and Benedict Wong as a character whose given a stereotypical role of the humorless wise Asian man who OBVIOUSLY gets a laugh at the end and whose choice to be mononymous is constantly berated by Cumberbatch (this is probably a good time to note that the comic relief is garbage and the worst thing about Doctor Strange) – but it was an inevitability in the great big machine that is Hollywood moneymaking, knowing that China is where much of the international bucks was to be grabbed. They clearly don’t want to alienate them and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but if we were going to have any non-Tibetan play the Ancient One, I’d certainly rather it indeed be Swinton.
Because Swinton is absolutely the best performance in the movie hands-down, no contest. She gives the supernatural character the ethereal presence she’s always been very good at, a sort of ability to make us feel like she’s levitating even when her character is clearly on the ground and yet we know the Ancient One isn’t a deity but a human being with the same desperations and faults as Strange or Mordo or others, which leads to the second best moment in Doctor Strange where she gets to wrap her characters’ emotional arc in a great bow and a tenderly delivered monologue. Most of the characters in the script are throwaway like Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams or even Michael Stuhlberg (I swear to God, I didn’t even know he was in the film until AFTER I saw it), but Swinton gets to make up all for it and takes over the movie every time she gets to appear in a shot.
Before Swinton came up, it was starting to sound like I was burying the movie so I may as well quit before I do. Doctor Strange is not a perfect movie, nor the greatest in the MCU. It’s complicated. It’s as complicated as Michael Giacchino’s score blatantly pulling a James Horner on himself with lifting themes from Star Trek for the sake dramatic yet familiar undertone (as well as Pink Floyd themes too). But the moment the Ancient One shows up, it’s a complicated film that makes for a very satisfying fantasy feature and some very wondrous special effects work that I would be very surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. And I will not pretend that I did not walk out of the film realizing that I had a good time, forgiving all of the flaws I elaborated on and forgetting they were there until after the fact. Isn’t that what a good popcorn film ought to do in the moment after all? Or is time just relative when you’re moving through dimensions?