Monday, November 7, 2016

Doctor Strange

The latest entry into the MCU introduces an element that we haven't seen much of: the mystic arts. And, of course, we have to begin with the master, Doctor Strange! But did Marvel manage to bring the magic?

The short version: Yes. It wasn't a brilliant tour de force, but it was a good movie and a solid entry into the MCU. It managed to introduce a complex character smoothly, a complex piece of world-building smoothly, and make it all still feel like a superhero movie.

Let's start with the obvious question: What were my preconceptions going in? I am not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange. I never collected his title, so I mostly know him from his various cameos and his time with the Defenders. (This was 1970s Defenders, and has almost no connection to the current Hell's Kitchen crew. It was Doctor Strange, Silver Surfer, Sub-Mariner, and Hulk. There weren't a lot of threats that could really challenge them, which is why they phased that team out of existence pretty quickly. I was a fan of the later iterations, which mostly involved second-tier heroes being tasked with crises by Strange.)

The origin was done pretty well. Pre-magic Strange borrowed a little too heavily from House, but that's pretty much the character. The inclusion of the music knowledge was a nice touch, and I wish they had followed it through with a better soundtrack later. A GotG-style soundtrack in which he uses various songs to help focus would have been cool, especially because the music was completely forgettable otherwise. It might have strayed from the comics too much, though.

Magic was also done really well. Enough explanation to give you a feel for the cosmology and style of the magic, not enough explanation to make you start poking holes in it. The visual effects were hugely important here, and those guys really hit it out of the ballpark. They were evocative, beautiful, intuitive, and actively helped you understand what was going on (well, except during the chase sequence, when they went more than a bit overboard).

I'm going to take a moment to call out the visuals on another point. Originally, I wasn't crazy about how they depicted the Dark Dimension. It felt very cliche. But then I thought about the classic splash pages of Byrne, Steranko, etc. That is exactly what those pages looked like. It wasn't falling back on cliche, it was deliberately creating an homage. Viewed that way, I have to give them mad props.

The end plot? Well, honestly, meh. The clever twist to out-think the enemy was really nicely done. Especially because there was a nice exposition of the cost, and the cost was not trivial. But I felt like the third act completely side-stepped the threat instead of actually resolving it. There were also some real pacing issues during the transition from the second act to the third. It set up the sequel really well, though, and in a way that feels natural.

As is my habit, I feel the need to look at the movie from the feminist angle. And, honestly, it's a huge fail. It completely fails the Bechdel Test. The Ancient One is really only considered female because they happened to cast an actress. Her character is strongly androgynous, and possibly not gendered at all. Which is an interesting character to have, certainly, and I'd like to see other people explore that angle. But it means that there was only one named female character in the whole movie. And she was the love interest, who did not stretch out of her cliched role in any way. Were there even other women in the background? Two of the bad guy's flunkies were women, but neither got a line. IMDB lists them as "brunette zealot" and "blonde zealot". A number of the doctors that shake their heads sadly at him were women. Sure, part of that is the source material. The comics made all those people men, so men they stayed. I really think Marvel dropped the ball on this one, as they could have done considerably better. Any one of the secondary characters (Mordu, Wong, even Pangborn) could have easily been gender-swapped without undermining the story in any way.

The MCU has produced some really brilliant masterpieces. This is not one of those. But, it certainly ranks above Thor 2, Iron Man 2 or 3, and possibly even Ant-Man and Age of Ultron. It had an uphill climb, and it made it to the top. It is super fun, upbeat, and well integrated into the universe without being dependent on it. There are several reviews out there tearing it down on one point or another. I would just like those reviewers to take a moment and think. Think about what this movie might have been. Think about all the ways it could have gone so very, very wrong. If the worst we can throw at it is that it's a bit formulaic and traditional, I think we came out way ahead.

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