Hey, it looks like we’re on a roll. Whilst you may be rocking away, things are going to get a little cold, a little stone cold! Ahh, I crack myself up, so whilst we boulder towards this week’s list, let’s get some ground rules out of the way with. This list must at least feature the rocks, stones, boulders or otherwise in a fashion that they stand out. That’s about it, so let’s get ready to rock and roll!
Ok, one more on the subject of Infinity War, then later this week I want to talk about how the MCU as a whole has changed cinema for the worse, and better. For today there is a Spoiler Warning in effect, but it’s coming up two weeks since release, and there’s only another week to Deadpool which will be a very different movie-going experience.
Tuesday I summarised the MCU as best as I could in brief, and tried to give you some idea of what to expect from Infinity War without giving too much away. Today the gloves are off, and so begins the review proper.
Given the volume of characters in play, it makes absolute sense to divide the narrative between them, each group trying to find a way to halt the progress of the Mad Titan. So let’s take this group by group, doing insufficient justice to each character as we go because we have many years to summarise with each:
The long anticipated and lesser known title to emerge onto the MCU’s steamroller of success is Doctor Strange, and despite a little controversy over the appointment of Benedict Cumberbatch to the role it’s everything we’ve come to expect from this media leviathan. Oh sure, it’s formulaic, but it’s Marvel’s formula, which has been working rather well for the last eight years and thirteen films. That’s halfway to the number of James Bond films there are in one seventh the time and barely any changes in lead actors.
Phase Three; Episode 2 delivers new levels of mysticism layered on top of the flimsy scientific justifications that Marvel has been getting good at, so long as you bear in mind a quote from the first Thor film you’ll be doing fine:
“Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.”
Sounds about right.
Our hero is pretty much the centre of our formula, practically a carbon copy of Tony Stark all the way down to the facial hair: an egotistical genius who excels in his field who suffers a life changing event, and his pursuit to put things right eventually land him the role of a superhero, in this case a brain surgeon seeking to restore the use of his hands turns to mystic arts. There’s a lot of Sherlock Holmes in Stephen Strange, and not just because Cumberbatch played both, but the degrees of obsession, arrogance, intelligence, and cunning make a comparison inevitable.
Tilda Swinton appears as herself, an ageless mystic capable of incredible feats of contorting the material world. Her character actually raised bigger concerns about Hollywood whitewashing, but she actually cuts a very original take on the eastern sensei that breaks a few cliches that would have seemed hackneyed in modern cinema. It’s a performance that demanded great verbal, emotional and physical delivery, and Swinton delivers on all counts.
All told we have a fairly slim cast of characters. We have a love story that is blown through fairly quickly and leaves us with a rather interesting little slice of narrative that helps us develop Strange and something we might revisit at another time, although I feel it could have been abandoned altogether with minimal effort. I’m sure most of us will find love for Wong, the deadpan comedy foil and all-round awesome librarian. Mordo presents an interesting figure so far as sidekicks go, eluding to a rather unpleasant history that led him to uncover the mystic arts, something I’m sure we’ll learn more about in the future.
Dormammu I knew to be a major villain in the Marvel Universe, one of those elder-evil types, bigger and badder even than Thanos, so when my Marvel expert on-call said they shouldn’t jump straight to the big guns, they should leave some room to escalate the situation. However using a minor villain – Mads Mikkelson as Kaecilius – as a mortal vessel of the Dark Dimensions puts a limitation on Dormammu that makes him a fearsome enough adversary without overwhelming the new sorcerer. Kaecilius actually reminds me a lot of Tai Lung from Kung Fu Panda, the student who excelled so far before turning on their master for withholding some incredible power, only to be struck down by the new prodigy who seems more willing to learn the truth.
Keep your eyes peeled for the thinly veiled future villain. Trust me, he’s not hard to spot, and he gets more and more obvious as the film goes on. If you need it spelling out for you just wait until the end-of-credits scene, the second one. And if you’re one of those people who leaves before the credits are over in a Marvel film then I automatically assume you’re the kind of person who doesn’t recycle and habitually throw away large amounts of food; it’s wasteful and frankly rude.
Villainy and threat are often second fiddle to origin story in films such as these, it’s something to which Yellowjacket, Ronan the Accuser, and Francis all fell prey in their respective appearances, and Doctor Strange presents us with a similar case where focus on the hero leaves us with an underdeveloped and readily forgotten villain. Oh, not that any of them were bad villains, but they’re not what people will take away from their respective titles.
On seeing the trailers I was a little concerned at the shifting worldscapes might be too much detail to bombard the senses. Well maybe, but cinematography made life easier, flat colour palettes typical of New York architecture make the outlandish costumes of the main cast stand out a mile, camera work keeps the focus on the action, leaving the whirling details to emphasise the speed and dynamics of every moment. I also had my concerns about the Cloak of Levitation becoming a little too adorable and “mascot-ish” but it balanced personality with entertainment value without swallowing the whole show for itself.
Though the bulk of the film is visually stunning I found one particular fight a little hard to watch, a brawl between two astral projections that seemed a little too unreal for me to buy into the tension of the scene. The ghosts of the two combatants seemed to have almost a Casper-like glow and translucency about them, and while the setting may have been intended to feel claustrophobic it just made everything harder to follow where other, more elaborate scenes had done the job so much better.
Biggest question: we learn that there are three sanctuaries placed around the world that emanate suitable protection from extra-dimensional forces to cover the globe, London, New York and Hong-Kong. Nothing in the southern hemisphere? Why does Johannesburg not get a chapter?
It took me longer than I’m proud of to spot the Infinity Stone. I’m not entirely sure how so many of these are ending up on Earth but seriously can someone try keeping them separate? We have two, and that feels like too many. We now have five out of six with only the with only the stone of the Soul remaining, meaning Ragnarok should see the beginnings of Thanos’ collection, and if you stick around long enough you’ll see how it’ll all tie together.
In short, watch Doctor Strange, it is a good film, and while that may sound like an over simplification I can’t honestly say that there’s much more to Doctor Strange than that. Visually it is a spectacle of a standard we’ve come to anticipate, action takes standards laid down by the Matrix to their next logical step, drama gives us comedy and tragedy in fairly even handed measures, and we are left with a new character who no doubt will make the Avengers that little bit richer for his presence. It’s still looking like a boy’s club but given the source material they’re working on we can’t expect much else just yet.