Wednesday 23 November 2016

Fade to grey: "Doctor Strange"

The problem with year-round blockbusters is that their wows are wearing off faster than ever. The problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that its myriad origin stories can only work minor variations on the same basic set-ups and scenes: if you're drawn to the movies for their storytelling properties, you can't help but feel as though you've seen and heard some-to-most of it before, whether in this universe or another. Doctor Strange opens with malevolent monk Mads Mikkelsen swiping some MacGuffiny Book of Nonsense from its ancient resting place before fleeing through a wormhole to present-day London, where he sees his robed minions knocked around by a space-warping, bald-pated Buddhist played by - you guessed it - Tilda Swinton. It's meant to be jawdropping, and on some superficial level it is, watching sidestreets being folded upwards until they stand at right angles to the ground. Wow, we go: ain't that something? And then the little sceptical man patrolling our memory banks clears his throat, and we go: oh, isn't this a bit like Inception?

This is - like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man before it - meant to be one of Marvel's larkier, more expressionistic outings, such trippy visual flourishes being overseen by the pulp-inclined Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister). And yet its focal point feels uncannily familiar: successful yet spiritually lost neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who will find himself on several levels after emerging from a career-ending car crash and passing into a mystic underworld-otherworld. As this snarky alpha begins to use his privilege for good, the nature of that familiarity becomes clear. Doctor Strange is Iron Man turned 90° to the ground: it enters into the same universe (sorry, Universe), only it comes at it from a slightly different angle. (The Radio Times might list it as "a sideways look at the Marvel origin story".) Early sequences in Kathmandu, where the broken Strange is rebuilt and reschooled by Swinton's Ancient One and her joshing apprentice Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), rebuke the abject humourlessness of Chris Nolan's Batman Begins: it's the same old hokum, now with a knowing smirk. 

Occasionally, Derrickson gestures towards something a touch more serious and interesting: a thesis on the relationship between the body and the landscape. An early conversation between Swinton and Cumberbatch establishes that cells can only be put together in a certain way, like jigsaw pieces; the same could be said of pixels. As Doc heals himself physically and spiritually - becoming a master of the universe the minute he accepts everything matters - so too the world reconstructs itself around him in increasingly elaborate ways. Mikkelsen's Caecilius, by contrast, unfolds the walls and roof of a centuries-old chapel as though it were origami; he tears skyscrapers in two lengthways, as though they were cheese strings. All of this makes for passable distraction - and makes Doctor Strange a virtual shoo-in for next year's effects Oscars - but ultimately they amount to no more than gestures, joshing pastiches of Nolan's unsmiling cosmic philosophy. It seems telling that the second "c" in Caecilius is pronounced soft, not hard (as the Latin textbooks of yore advised): the silly is built in here.

At some point after the initial wave of cheerleading for the MCU subsides, fully-grown critics are going to have to face up to the fact these films are not just fantastical, but fundamentally ridiculous and flimsy - at least as ridiculous and flimsy as, say, the openly derided Gods of Egypt. (Strange just has better PR, that's all.) Swinton and Cumberbatch's floating astral selves swap increasingly portentous pronouncements; Mikkelsen's eye shadow is, one presumes, intended to lend him a toehold alongside Heath Ledger's Joker in the pantheon of modern supervillains, but he mostly resembles a bassist in a Sweet tribute band. The flimsiness begets uncommon levels of thespwaste, an overriding sensation that everyone on screen is underemployed, underengaged, turned solely towards cranking up another franchise-within-the-franchise, banging out more product.

While it's nice that these films have made global stars of such likable white chaps as Messrs. Cumberbatch, Downey Jr., Pratt and Rudd, the adherence to a very particular, narrow story arc leaves no time or space for anybody on screen to defy the easy categorisations of "baddie", "sidekick", "love interest" or "expositional tool". Michael Stuhlbarg gets by with two meek scenes as a rival surgeon, a character who'll presumably go to the dark side somewhere down the line - but if you can't see how these movies routinely shortsell their actors' own powers, see what Stuhlbarg accomplished in roughly the same screen time in one astonishing flashback as a homophobic father in the most recent season of the Amazon series Transparent. Rachel McAdams, following up Spotlight, is stuck in the Pepper Potts role of perpetual helpmeet/potential squeeze, nursing our hero back to functionality before getting forgotten about because she's a girl; even Swinton, less an actor these days than a presence, twinkles only briefly before petering out.

As for the main attraction, well, after all Cumberbatch's commendable work to reinvigorate Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Strange emerges from this first introduction as a second-string, stop-gap sort of hero: no more, in total, than a beard, a cape and a handful of pop trivia. (On a performance level, the actor's natural self-effacement seems markedly less effective than Downey Jr.'s calculatedly vulgar screenhogging - we never forget which asshole is inside Iron Man's suit, but Cumberbatch gets lost amid the bigger bangs.) My big problem with Doctor Strange, in the end, is that for all Derrickson's doodling around him, the central figure is never quite strange or unique enough to merit sustained interest - to power one movie, let alone the two or three we're doubtless going to have to sit through over the years to come. If a furrowed brow, facial hair and a passing knowledge of late Seventies one-hit wonders are all that's required to become a superhero these days, there are at least six regulars down my local pub quiz who should have been handed their own Marvel spin-off by now.

Doctor Strange is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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