Saturday, October 29, 2016

Doctor Strange

Ace neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is at the top of his game: a life of luxury, a burgeoning career, and the cocky attitude to match. When a car accident damages his hands beyond repair, the loss of effective control of his motor skills means he must bid his source of livelihood goodbye. In effect, his life. Exhausting all his financial means to find a scientific cure, his efforts are all in vain. Desperation leads him to turn to the mystic arts for answers, his quest bringing him to a place called Kamar-Taj, in the heart of Kathmandu where he comes face to face with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Refused at first for his arrogance and brash attitude, he is eventually accepted as part of the group with the help of Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), one of the students who will become his guide in this new world. As the threat of apocalyptic doom looms closer no thanks to rogue student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), Doctor Strange starts questioning his purpose of coming to Nepal, whether just to save his hands, or if he is destined for something much greater.

DO NOT LEAVE AT ONCE when the credits start rolling. The mid-credits scene paves the way for Thor: Ragnarok, while the post-credits scene seals the deal for a sequel. If you thought cinema has reached the apex of CGI mindfuckery with either the Matrix or Inception, then wait until you see Doctor Strange. Marvel is well-aware by now that a kickass opening sequence is key to holding a moviegoer’s attention for the next two hours. Well, watching Swinton and Mikkelsen chase each other and engage in a melee in some random New York alley while the buildings around them literally bend and rotate is rather epic. And then there’s that fight scene in Hong Kong where all of them are trying to kill each other as time is flying backwards. It’s what makes the fight scenes here stand out vis-a-vis in previous films in the MCU. It’s not just battle choreography, but rather moving art and philosophy as well, rendered in a much simpler visual form. All at the same time.

Marvel has avoided the mystic and the magical for quite some time, passing off the inexplicable in Thor’s world as advanced alien technology while downgrading Wanda Maximoff from super witch to human experiment. Nobody can really blame them. How do you introduce such a tricky concept without losing your audience? It’s a good thing that they waited for a while. Doctor Strange shares our doubts as he’s just starting. He is an incredibly fast learner, but we witness him fail several times before becoming his very own Sorcerer Supreme. Sure, the movie’s two-hour run might seem rushed as far as character development is concerned, especially for someone so powerful. At least it’s made clear that it’s not plain magic, but rather a skill that needs concentration and constant practice.

Another way of making the theme palatable to the average moviegoer is to make use of elements tangible in daily life. In the visual effects department, whenever one of the sorcerers conjures a portal, what you see makes it appear as though they are welding it with their bare hands. Sparks literally fly and dissipate, the volume and precision of which heavily relying on the current level of their skill set. Compare this to how magic is dealt with in third-world TV shows where all the character ever does is wave his hand and shout out some magic words before being bathed in an explosion of colorful lights pastel or neon. That’s lazy storytelling. In Doctor Strange, there’s a logic to it, a process that has to be followed.

Stephen Strange’s brand of arrogance is legendary. He somehow reminds you of Tony Stark, but with a much drier and more offensive wit. Even at his lowest moments, his ego is something that he never really loses. There were several moments in the cinema when the audience just collectively sighed to the tune of, “Oh wow, he DID NOT just say that”, particularly in that scene where he was being brutally frank with Christine (Rachel McAdams). Iron Man can be such a jerk, but since he is almost always half-joking, it actually translates to charisma. Doctor Strange is an asshole. Period. Whenever he utters a scathing remark, you just know that he means every single word. This is what makes it more exciting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is he going to appear alongside the Avengers in one of the sequels? If so, the clash of these two egotistical personalities is definitely going to be box office gold.

A lot has been said about casting and accusations of whitewashing. If you are not a fan of the comics or the animated series, then this issue is moot. Swinton doesn’t just put her androgynous looks to good use, she also portrays the Ancient One as someone more relatable and in touch with modernity and science despite her involvement in a mystic scene heavily influenced by East Asian values, which many assume to be serious and plain boring. In a way, she is like your cool university professor who wouldn’t hesitate to crack a joke, not to be funny, but to help you feel at ease so you can learn in a more efficient way. These Oscar-winning actresses do bring something to the table. Here’s hoping Cate Blanchett would be as effective as one of the big bad villains in next year’s Thor: Ragnarok. For the meantime, have fun with Doctor Strange. It’s the most visually-appealing Marvel film yet to grace the big screen.

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