By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington On Movies: DOCTOR STRANGE
Doctor Strange (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Scott Derrickson, 2016
Okay. Take a charismatic comic book character from the Golden Age of Marvel Superheroes and Supervillains — a caped, wise-cracking, ultra-brainy, two-fisted surgeon/sorcerer called Doctor Strange, a Superguy dreamed up by Spider-Man creators Steve Ditko (drawing) and Stan the Man Lee (script), and filter him though millions of dollars worth of top-grade, Dream-it-and-do-it CGI, and a century’s worth of science fiction clichés a.k.a. archetypes, along with the spectacularly designed so-called “multiverse” (a universe multiplied) which is maybe a big scary infinite magical place that puts this movie in the mode of all those Wachowski Matrixes, plus Blade Runner. Kubrick and Miyazaki (according to producer Kevin Feige), and a lot of Marvel movie variations since the Sam Raimi Spider-Mans.
Then, add a classy multicultural, very expensive and very prestigious cast headed by the thinking person’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch (Mr. Cheekbones) as Doctor Stephen Strange: egomaniac superstar neurosurgeon turned caped multiversal crime buster, and match him with the scene-swiping Chiwetel Ejiofor as bemused co-hero Mordo, Mads Mikkelsen as villain-of-villains (and then some) Kaecilius, Rachel McAdams as Strange’s beauteous medical partner and nifty co-neurosurgeon Dr. Christine Palmer, Benedict Wong as Wong the dour librarian of the library of non-Harry Potter sorcery, and, most memorably, Tilda Swinton as the bald, pale Celtic sorceress known hereabouts as The Ancient One. (Don‘t ask her age.)
When all these players are in place, zip around the world from Manhattan to London to Nepal, in vast loony cityscapes that fold and unfold on themselves like pop-up cards gone berserk, with the Strange cinema crew (including production designer Charles Wood and cinematographer Ben Davis) obviously trying to go one better on all those twisting, bending cityscapes in Chris Nolan‘s Inception — and you’ve got — well, you’ve got yet another marvelous SuperMovie from the SuperMoviemakers at SuperMarvel, a well-heeled band whose imaginations know no bounds and who always hit their marks — i.e.: Follow the parameters of the original comics, hue to the plot schedule of an imminent (maybe) final showdown or end of the world and bring on the big brouhaha right before the closing credits. Then cue the teasers for the next movie. (There are two. Don’t walk out too soon.)
I might prefer something adapted not from a classic comic but, say, a great novel, or a profound drama or a truly witty comedy, but we don’t call the shots. Anyway, I’d be lying if I said Doctor Strange didn’t entertain me, or probably won’t entertain many of you, besides returning its investment (and then some) and conquering the marketplace from here to Hong Kong, while opening up new career vistas for Tilda the Ancient One and Wong the Librarian and young Doctor Cumberbatch.
In many respects, this Doctor Strange is a standard super-hero origin story with mind-boggling production values and a surprising cast good enough to do Chekhov or Shakespeare. Here’s the pitch: We first meet Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange, superstar medico, in a busy, bustling metropolitan hospital, where he works alongside McAdams’ Dr. Christine, and is almost offensively self -adoring. All this comes crashing to a halt, when his Lamborghini sports car takes a tumble one dark night, and his surgeon’s hands are crushed and ruined (a bit like the pianist Orlac’s in Mad Love). Strange’s ego is ruined too, but it receives the right kind of a massage when he discovers Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a very satisfied customer of The Ancient One. Pangborn, it seems, was once a paralyzed wreck, but now looks fit enough for another season of “Law and Order.”
Off goes Strange to Kathmandu. (If they were going to revive Chuck Mangione, why didn’t they also revive Bob Seger?) And he finds the kind of mystic Eastern mountain paradise that might have once inspired James Hilton and Frank Capra’s Shangri La. Soon Strange has crossed paths with Mordo, Wong, Kaecilius, the Ancient One and other partakers of the astral portals and the dark dimension, of the wisdom of the Temple of Kamar-Taj, and the Library of Wong, and he has donned the Cloak of Levitation (one snazzy glad rag that — and if you order one in 18 minutes, we‘ll send you another one free). Self-confidence and torso restored, Our Man Strange learns to make mind and magic triumph over matter and muscle, to climb every mountain, search high and low, follow every rainbow…
It’s not Cumberbatch’s masterpiece, or Ejiofor’s or Swinton’s, but it doesn’t have to be. These actors fill their bill and earn their credits by just showing up. And, in the first few scenes, when Cumberbatch races through his speeches, speedily and snottily, we’re reminded of how much fun a certain kind of tongue-in-cheek over-acting, or self-satire, can be. I don’t think Doctor Strange is necessarily all that much better than the much, much less well-received Doctor Strange (which had prettier if less wacky backdrops). But the actors do seem to be having more fun.
The director and co-writer of all this is Scott Derrickson, the ambitious horror-meister who previously gave us The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, two Sinisters, and The Day The Earth Stood Still (the second non-Robert Wise version), which should not necessarily make us all that grateful, but some of which is really grabby and grippy and tri… (Sorry! Cliché alert.)
Derrickson is one of those modern moviemakers who shows up at the table with every techno-toy and archetype (a.k.a. cliché) he can find, and then hurls you onto a rollercoaster, chains you to the door, lets ’er rip, trying to extract maximum scream value from each scene. He‘s the kind of well-fixed cinemanufacturer who maybe views Michael Bay as a Grand Old Man of the Cinema — just as he maybe views Chuck Mangione (in his ‘70’s heyday) as a Grand Old Man of Jazz. (Mangione’s catchy, often-used little number “Feels So Good“ gets an ample airing and tribute here). Blah, blah, blaaah…di blah di blah….(I admit it: I’ve hummed the damn thing myself.)
This show is undoubtedly Derrickson’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t mean we should be breathlessly awaiting the Criterion edition of Doctor Strange, with a commentary by Bay and an improvised trumpet commentary track by Mangione, or a Mangione imitator. Derrickson shows here that he can throw away money and blow up sets with the best (or worst) of them, and he also shows that he can cast a classy international ensemble of actors and drench us with pop spirituality of the old TV “Kung Fu” variety. (Life is a forest, a forest is life. Life is a machine, a machine is life. Life is magic, magic is life, Life is a comic book, a comic book…)
I didn‘t read any Doctor Strange adventures in his relatively brief heyday — my loyalty to Marvel comics stopped with Spider-Man — but, as long as there’s a Cumberbatch or two to play him, and as long as Cumberbatch (who definitely has a name made for a Hammer Studio opening credit line) doesn‘t actually become the next Vincent Price, we shouldn’t feel too overwhelmed or ungrateful. After all, it’s only a movie, even if it did cost several hundred million dollars.
Meanwhile, we’re left to ruminate on why those hundreds of million dollars are spent and acres of high-priced talent are deployed, here and elsewhere, to repeatedly bring us mind-boggling adaptations of mammoth clichéd (a.k.a. archetypal) best-sellers or beloved old comics whose basic plot line is that the world is racing toward apocalypse and only finding the right superhero will save us all. Is it a solace that we usually know who will win the last battle or make it to the teasers? Or that, thanks to the House of Marvel, this production is one eye-boggling, pulse-pummeling, spectacular and really trippy… (Sorry. Cliché alert.)