Saturday, October 29, 2016

Doctor Strange: This mundane psychedelia

The best parts in the Marvel films are the ones where it all gets a bit trippy, when it drops the grey concrete aesthetic of realism, and goes full-on with the cosmic.

It's there in the Guardians of the Galaxy, where the team unexpectedly spark off from a goofy dance-off to become supreme cosmic deities for a minute, and even more surprisingly, it was there in Ant-Man when that film stopped relying on the easy charm of its excellent cast and plunged into the unknown of the microverse.

With that in mind, there is little shock to discover the Doctor Strange movie is tripping its balls off for a good portion of its running time, and is the most far out thing with a Marvel studios logo on it, by far. It's just a shame it's still mired in the mundane realities of the modern blockbuster.

The scenes of mystic mayhem and inter-dimensional tourism in Doctor Strange are impressive, and frequently overwhelming. The fractual psychedelia, as buildings of brick, stone and glass splay out in multiple directions, is visually stunning, and deliberately disconcerting. 

And that's just the tip of the mystical iceberg - there are frequent trips to the astral plane and the dark dimension, where the weirdness goes into overdrive, and some of it is quite effective - one small moment where a character's fingers spawn new little hands that spawn new little hands that spawn new little hands is suitably grotesque, and a decent crack at capturing the kind of weird shit you actually see in an altered mental state.

But there is also a desperation to it all, and all these mindbending visual feel genuinely overcooked. A vision by committee, they lack Steve Ditko's brutal individualism, which he expressed through his dark dimension, and the mindless ones who roamed it. The movie version of other dimension is colourful and crazy, but also over-textured and busy - modern visual effects wizards can't help throwing everything into the mix, even when less can be more.

And all that flash can't hide the plodding desperation to spark a new Marvel franchise. There just isn't much of an actual movie there, even when it's rushing through set-up and plot.

As the good Doctor's first big screen appearance, it has got to get all the origin stuff out of the way - which is does admirably quickly - but then there is nothing more than trite themes of redemption and humbleness. A man has to learn how not to be a dick, and there really is nothing much more to it than that.

It's so busy setting up potential villains  - Baron Mordo's inevitable heel-turn really does come off as  a forced attempt to spark the next stage of Strange's usual hero-journey - and it's busy setting up a whole new section of this established universe, going heavy on the multiverse concept and introducing a magical element to the defense of the planet.

With all that going on, there are no surprises, and nothing really unexpected by the time the end credits roll. It's serviceable enough, and doesn't bother with much of an actual story when it has so much plot to get through.

This is all a bit harsh on Doctor Strange, which for all its busyness and predictability, is still a fun night at the movies, and some of the mystical mumbo-jumbo - and even some of its elementary-level philosophical musings - is bound to strike the right chord with certain sections of the audience.

As noted, it does rock along at a fair clip, establishing the title character's hubris, charting his downfall, and getting him in that bitching crimson cape with a minimum of fuss and bother, and it's easy enough to let the ridiculousness of the whole thing slide on by.

It is a lot funnier than expected, with some sharp dialogue and great character beats. Out of all the blockbuster studios, Marvel have learned Joss Whedon's lesson of structuring stories like they're straight dramas, but treating most individual scenes like they're pure comedy.

And like all the Marvel films, the real power is the cast - Benedict Cumberbatch, who was worth the delay in the whole film production until he was free, looks fucking great with a goatee, Tilda Swinton speaks multitudes with a slight twitch of the lips, Mads Mikkelsen is Mads Mikkelsen and Chiwetel Ejiofor might not fully be able to sell Mordo's about-face, but still keeps the humanity of the character front and center.

But the MVP award for acting goes, as always, to Benedict Wong, who does so much with so little, in every role he takes, and he makes the potentially socially mortifying prospect of the Asian manservent and gives Wong strength, nobility and equality.

All this, along with the adolescent thrill of hearing people use words like Sorcerer Supreme and Agamotto said out loud, (even if, disappointingly, I never caught a Cyttoak), make an entertaining films, and it has the odd moment of wonder.

But these are just moments. Marvel movies still have their great scenes, where they make us laugh and cry, where they thrill, or entertain, or even shine in cosmic splendor. But they're still not there with the complete movie experience - one film that stands out as its own thing, something complete and true. Now that it's built its foundations, it's time to build to that next level.

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