Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review - Doctor Strange

          I have returned! Those who have been following the blog may have noticed that I was eerily absent for September and October, not having posted anything since my review of Star Trek Beyond in August. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, contrary to what I announced at the outset of my Beyond review, I have still been on that kind of personal "vision quest" that I previously talked about - I was lamenting the fact that I am currently stuck in a career field that I have become quite bored with, and I was tearing myself apart trying to figure out whether or not I should embrace it and condemn myself to a life of boredom and security, or if I should still do what I have traditionally done and metaphorically burn it all down, risking everything I have to try and reap the greater reward. Add to that the mounting anxieties that seem to plague this wretched little planet (which I briefly outlined in my "Agoraphobia" article), and one can see that these past couple of months (nay, this entire past summer) has been one of the most maddening in a very long time. I found myself perpetually haunted by that question "what's the point of it all?", that question that I have been asking of the world since I was in high school several years ago. It felt as if I had created my own specter.
          Luckily, this past month has been something of a revelation for me. After several failed job interviews and watching various changes and shifts being made around the office at work, I was once again reminded of how silly everyday life is. Like John the Savage, disgusted with the Soma-suppressed minds of the Brave New World, I again realized I needed an escape from it all. By early October, I knew I had to get back into writing, but the time was not opportune - there were really no interesting films throughout September and October (at least, none worth writing about), and I hadn't researched anything for a philosophical article. Instead, I decided to catch up on some reading, diving into Plato's Republic, which, believe it or not and despite my background in Ancient Greek philosophy, was a work that I had never actually finished before. It didn't take long after embarking on that endeavor that I realized how much more enjoyable the philosophical world is over being a "working professional". Accordingly, I have spent that past couple of weeks entertaining the possibility of going back to grad school to pursue doctoral work as well as trying to secure a teaching position at a community college (the problem with the latter option is that it is very difficult to secure a tenured position in the community college system with a master's degree while there are candidates applying with a PhD). Regardless of how I wanted to pursue things going forward, I knew that the intersection of all of these things would center around my writing. The good news is that, while taking the time to research these options and ponder these ideas, several worthwhile writing topics have presented themselves - the impending release of Doctor Strange and Rogue One, as well as a new philosophical topic that I have been meditating on.
          And here we are, at the review of Doctor Strange. I should point out that, by the time of writing these first few paragraphs, the film hasn't been released to the public yet (it comes out next Friday). But, as one can infer from the above paragraphs, my enthusiasm for philosophy has once again been rekindled and, as we approach the end of October, one of those worthwhile writing topics has appeared in the form of the highly anticipated Doctor Strange. As such, I am once again itching to put fingers to keyboard and start doing the one thing that actually makes life meaningful and productive. And this wouldn't be the first time I have embarked on a film review without having actually seen the film yet - some may recall that I did this very thing with Ant-Man last year (eerily, almost exactly one year ago). Of course, I won't be able to get very far into this review without having seen it yet, but, much like Ant-Man, Doctor Strange will require a little bit of preemptive background that I can at least get out of the way now.
          Doctor Strange will be yet another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring teenage-heartthrob du jour Benedict Cumberbatch. While I have at several points in past articles expressed my overall dissatisfaction with the MCU, if Ant-Man and The Winter Soldier have taught us anything, it's that there can occasionally be fleeting strokes of true genius in an otherwise incoherent clusterfuck. What makes Doctor Strange all the more interesting is that, like Ant-Man, he is a kind of "fringe" character in the Marvel Universe - not of the same mainstream ilk as, say, Captain America or Iron Man, but still having a notable presence in Marvel comics nonetheless. That said, I will admit that I had really only heard of Doctor Strange in the past, having never read the comics as a child (this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone - I have previously mentioned that I was never really into comics as a child, preferring more to read novels and poetry). As such, I had to do a little bit of research into the character both in anticipation for the film and for writing this piece.
          And it's from this point that I write having seen the film. Remember in the previous paragraphs when I said that there can be occasional strokes of pure genius in the Marvel Universe? This is one of those moments. Doctor Strange is unlike anything previously witnessed in the MCU thus far, bringing us a deeply imaginative character lost in very hypnotizing and bizarre landscapes. And while there are a couple of small misses with the story, this is by far a much more wayward and far-out approach to a superhero films than Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs Superman from earlier this year. Even from a conceptual level (i.e. a renowned neurosurgeon who becomes lost in the teachings of Eastern mysticism), Doctor Strange excels, and this is yet to say anything about the visual landscapes that seem like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing or the great performance by Cumberbatch that may very well rival that of Tom Hiddleston's Loki or Robert Downy Jr.'s Tony Stark.
          Doctor Strange opens up with the sorcerer Kaecilius (portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen), a student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and his followers murdering the librarian at their compound in Nepal and stealing the pages for a dark and forbidden ritual from an ancient tome. Despite attempts by the Ancient One to stop them, Kaecilius and his "zealots", as the film refers to them, escape. Cut to New York City. Famed neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) showcases his skills, removing what would have been an otherwise fatal bullet from the brain of a shooting victim. As with any skilled and accomplished person, Strange takes a great degree of pride in his work, though perhaps a little too much as he savagely berates another doctor who had diagnosed this particular case as hopeless. We are also introduced to Strange's co-worker and on-and-off love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who reminds Stephen of an upcoming Neurological Society banquet event where he is slotted to speak. Again, we are reminded of Strange's high opinion of himself as we watch him prepare for the banquet, with his closet of fine Italian suits, his drawer full of Rolex and Omega watches, and the Lamborghini he just happens to have securely parked somehow at his penthouse suite in New York City. That said, there is quite a reversal of fortune when Strange violently crashes said Lamborghini on his way to the banquet, crippling his hands to the point of no longer being able to do his work.
          Strange tries everything to try and regain the functionality of his hands, from the cutting-edge of neuroscience and nerve restructuring to acupuncture and fringe medicine, again criticizing those who fail to help him, so sure that he would be able to do it better. Out of options, Strange hears of a man who was, at one point, completely paralyzed from the waist down, who is now not only walking again, but doing activities like playing basketball. After finding and speaking to this man, Strange makes his way to Kathmandu, Nepal, were he stumbles across Kamar-Taj, the sanctuary of the Ancient One, where Kaecilius had previously stolen the forbidden ritual. After a phase of doubt and arguing with the Ancient One, she eventually opens his mind, revealing to him the many different possible worlds that both exist and don't exist, the alternate dimensions in which creatures both horrific and beautiful threaten not just Earth, but many other worlds beyond time and space. Having embarked on his path towards enlightenment, Strange then immerses himself in Ancient Indian texts, poring through pages of Classical Sanskrit to learn the mystical ways of the sorcerer. Along the way, he acquires the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation, and learns that the ritual the Kaecilius and his followers stole was a ritual to summon Dormammu, a dark being behind the veil of time that threatens to destroy Earth. As can be imagined, Strange eventually finds himself in the position where he has to stop Kaecilius and at the same time learn the moral lesson that not everything is always about him.
          There are a lot of things that Doctor Strange does well that sets it apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From a conceptual level, the characters, story, and design are a lot more imaginative and creative than many other MCU offerings. A crippled neurosurgeon who becomes a time sorcerer by learning the ways of Eastern mysticism is a lot more interesting than, say, a guy running around wearing an American flag fighting Nazis, or an engineer who creates a robot suit. It may be worth pointing out that Ant-Man did this too - it is intriguing that the "fringe" characters of the MCU tend to be the most imaginative (such as an ex-con thief who stumbles across a suit that shrinks him down to the size of an ant). And while there may be some questionable aspects to the plot (a point which I will elaborate later), this same degree of imagination is echoed at several points throughout the story. Defeating a cosmic nether-being by putting the entire space-time continuum in an infinite playback loop, like your favorite song on repeat or a broken VCR, takes a larger degree of imagination than the Iron Man approach of firing a thousand rockets at it and hoping it dies.
          And this same degree of imagination is reflected in the special effects for the film. As is to be expected of any entry in the MCU, there is a large degree of CGI in Doctor Strange. But, unlike the CGI of previous installments in the MCU, the special effects produce a somewhat different result. Recall that I once equated the dependence of the MCU on CGI to that of a drug addict passed out on a dirty mattress with used needles strewn about the floor. The underlying strength of that criticism is the implied feeling of pity that one would have if he were to walk into the room to find the miserable wretch sprawled out across the mattress. The same concept can apply to Doctor Strange, but from a different perspective - that of the drug addict. Doctor Strange takes the special effects to an entirely different world, a world where kaleidoscopic hallucinations paint warped perceptions of reality. The special effects compliment the overall whimsy of the character - watching New York City fold and twist, with cars cascading down vertical streets like a waterfall, as Kaecilius tries to destroy the Sanctum Sanctorum, or watching Strange alter the flow of time by manipulating a broken watch highlight his mystery and intrigue.
          Of course, a large portion of credit needs to be afforded the actors in the film. Cumberbatch, for example, does a great job of showcasing a slow, steady, and, most importantly, relatable character shift. At the outset of the film, we are introduced to a doctor who is driven more by a desire to be the best in his discipline, as opposed to being driven by a genuine desire to help those who require his skills. This is in stark contrast to the Doctor Strange we are left with at the end of the film, a sorcerer who has been humbled by the realization that there is a lot more to the world than just his own success. Again, this character shift is steady, not abrupt - I have previously pointed out that there is an alarming trend in modern science fiction cinema where character development consists of simply telling the audience that the character is different, not showing them that the character is different. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the character is not relatable - which is quite a pity because relatable characters make a film a lot more memorable and profound by appealing to the audience's pathos, something that is crucial in any kind of drama. Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the Ancient One also deserves some praise here. The stock character that one would expect for the Ancient One would be some kind of generic sage, who speaks only in profound and epic one-liners, trying to convey a moral lesson even when doing something as mundane as sweeping the kitchen. But the Ancient One turned out to be nothing like this. Swinton's Ancient One was much more relatable, more akin to Morpheus from The Matrix than the cartoonishly epic Zordon from the Power Rangers series. Despite this, I will confess that I was mildly disappointed with Mikkelsen's Kaecilius. Conceptually speaking, Kaecilius is a blind idealist who will resort to violence to realize his ideal - a character archetype that we have seen over and over (see Voldemort, Kylo Ren, Poison Ivy, etc.). Virtually all of Kaecilius' lines consisted of some permutation of the phrase "Dormammu will conquer the world and I need to destroy you to make that happen". One thing that can make a film (or piece of literature, for that matter) even more profound is a villain that the audience can relate to or sympathize with. Kaecilius doesn't do that - what we are left with is a stock character that the protagonist simply just needs to defeat, not another personality that the protagonist has to come to terms with.
          On that note, I suppose now would be a good time to point out the few things in Doctor Strange that could have used improvement. I previously mentioned that the story missed the mark in a few ways. We are yet again presented with the increasingly tiresome story of "good guy defeats bad guy", which, when coupled with my above criticism of Kaecilius, is made all the more tiresome by the fact that the bad guy is a stock villain that was likely pulled out of a grab bag of stock villains. What would really have been a trip is if everything that Kaecilius said about Dormammu was true, and that the dark dimension that Dormammu sought to create was, in fact, a new paradise, a kind of Eden where Dormammu would improve mankind in the same way that Zeus molded man from clay. But alas, such a prospect is far to profound for modern audiences - we are just left to assume that "Dormammu = bad". Related is the cliche moral lesson that Strange has to learn. I had praised Benedict Cumberbatch's acting for his portrayal of a character that learns a valuable moral lesson by the end of the film. However, like the overall plot, this is a moral lesson we have seen before. The "egomaniac humbled by the events of the story" theme isn't new, and, in fact, we have already seen it before in the MCU (if I recall correctly, this is a lesson that Thor had to learn in the first Thor film). In many ways, it feels as if the writers didn't want to take any risks with the story - they wanted to rely on the trusted formula of "good guy defeats bad guy", while, along the way, the good guy learns not to be selfish while saving the world. It's a pity because, out of perhaps the entire Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange would perhaps be the one IP to take risks with. As the creative visuals illustrate, Doctor Strange, by its very nature, is far out, and anything is possible. As such, there is room to iterate on something truly creative when it comes to the story, an opportunity that I think our writers may have missed.
          Despite these points, Doctor Strange is still getting a recommendation. I can be content with a generic plot if the other aspects of the film compensate for it, which, in this case, they do. Conceptually and visually, Doctor Strange leaves one spellbound, a feat that other installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have never achieved. The concept of a neurosurgeon who learns the ways of Eastern mysticism and gets lost in a multiverse of infinite dimensions is a lot more captivating than an American supersoldier who punches Nazis, while imagery that can be compared to M.C. Escher drawings being put through the filter of a bad acid trip are certainly a lot less bland than the explosion-riddled clusterfuck that was Age of Ultron. Again, it may be worth pointing out that all of the "fringe" characters of the MCU tend to be the most intriguing. If this trend were to continue, perhaps we will also see this same level of creativity in Black Panther and Captain Marvel.

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