Monday 21 November 2016

Review: Doctor Strange (second-pass)

Doctor Strange (2D / second-pass / SPOILERS)
Cert: 12A / 115 mins / Dir. Scott Derrickson / Trailer

This review contains spoilers. Although it's been out for a few weeks now, so I guess you've seen it already and that doesn't matter, right? I mean, if you're waiting for the DVD because you can't make it to your nearest participating auditorium, you wouldn't very well be clicking on reviews of the film in the blind hope that they're spoiler-free, now would you? Nonetheless, if it's spoiler-free discussion you're after, click here for my previous review.

Apart from anything else, if you haven't seen Doctor Strange, none of this will make any sense.

Still here? Smashing. Now to be honest, not that much changed on my second viewing of Doctor Strange, other than Mordo's path being laid out more clearly than I'd first perceived. But I enjoyed the film just as much, and maintain that it's one of Marvel Studios' stronger standalone-movies. But you know what would make it better? Scrapping that prologue.

As the film opens, we meet Kaecilius and his acolytes as they break into the Kamar-Taj library and steal pages from a sacred book belonging to The Ancient One, murdering the librarian protector in the process. Their escape with the pages is then threatened by Tilda Badass herself, who pursues the group into a mirror-dimensioned London and battles throughout a continually warping cityscape to recover her property. The gang escape, safe in the knowledge that their reputations, and the film's maguffin, have been established. We then cut to a New York hospital and meet Doctor Stephen Strange…

But why is that sequence there at the start? It's a bold spectacle to establish the mystic and psychadelic elements of the film, but it blows any reveal further down the line. The first Captain America movie had a similar opening segment, intriducing the Cosmic Cube and Red Skull which would form the backbone of the film, the difference being that both were used incredibly sparingly at the church in Tønsberg, hinting at what's to come rather than flat-out showing us.

Much like Predator*1, it'd be better for the structure of the film if we skipped the went straight into Stephen's story without the page-theft prologue. Our realisation that magic is a quantifiable force in the everyday world would have unfolded with the hero's. The doctor's physical unmaking and spiritual rebuilding would be more a journey we travel with him, rather than as a passenger who's already seen a snapshot of the destination. Imagine if Strange's initial blast through the Astral Realm had been the first fantastical imagery we'd seen in the film.

As for Kaecilius, the rest of the film not only explains his character and intentions, but also recaps on that very scene when the theft is described to Strange. A tighter edit in the Mordo/Strange training conversation, so that the mention of the stolen pages cuts directly to Kaecilius summoning the floor-portal, would be all that's required for the audience to catch up. It's not even as if the rest of the screenplay expands the villain's character too much anyway, so having him as The Generic Marvel Baddie Who Doesn't Survive His First Film Appearance*2 would be equally workable without his early-doors introduction. Indeed, without the opening as it stands, Kaecilius' later soliloquy to Strange about good and evil being illusions while time is the real enemy would be so much more ambiguously convincing had we not seen him lop off a dude's head with two axes and for no real reason*3

In fact, it almost seems like Doctor Strange's opening sequence was an afterthought designed to hammer home the "these are the bad guys" schtick and grab the audience's attention from scene one, rather than tell the story with an unfolding intrigue. Are Marvel really so worried that audiences will get bored after thirty minutes of hero-building with no superpowers on display? They managed perfectly well with 2008's Iron Man, as I recall.

Anyway, I notice that the three Sanctums - Hong Kong, London, New York - providing equally-spaced supernatural cover to the world are all in the Northern Hemisphere. Who's protecting Australia? Thor, when his accent slips, I imagine…

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies preceding it (although that's not essential to enjoying this).

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
For the heachache-inducing spectacle, yes.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Pretty much.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Not really, but only because of the strength of the cast..

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
No, but I will grill you mercilessly for reasons.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
I'm not hearing one :(

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The score for Doctor Strange is provided by one Michael Giacchino, who's also on musical duties for Rogue One. In fact, I mentioned this in the footnotes last time.
I have reservations.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Basically, Predator would have been a much better movie (and it's already a great one, remember) if the opening sequence of the alien craft crashing from space into the jungle had been cut from the movie altogether. That way, the reports of an unsubstantiated threat in the undergrowth would have been as elusive to the audience as they would to Schwarzenegger's Schaefer, and the gradual reveal of his nemesis would have greater weight as a result. Instead, everyone in the auditorium (okay, living room, these days) knows that a UFO has landed because they've watched it happen, and it's just a case of clock-watching until the Yautja reveals itself. The opening shot manages to rob the film of its mystery and suspense, leaving a disposable action-flick in its wake.

*2 Indeed, the recurring problem in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how to balance the villains. If you spend time in a hero's origin story to sufficiently build their nemesis from scratch, you risk detracting from the hero's screen-time. They need a measure by which to test/prove their own strength, of course, but have the villain killed at the end of the first film and it feels like a one-dimensional, token character (cf Abomination, Whiplash, Malekith). Whereas if you don't permanently despatch the villain, the hero hasn't beaten their challenge and the film can feel like nothing's really been achieved (cf The Chitauri and Thanos, even though that one's building up to Infinity War). All you can do really is at least give your villain a decent amount of personality in the meanwhile (cf Red Skull, Ronan the Accuser, the Trevor Slattery Mandarin), or give them a sliding-scale of morality (cf Loki, Winter Soldier).

*3 Kaecilius and his gang had the librarian incapacitated while they stole the pages anyway, there was no actual need to kill him if they thought they were skilful enough to carry out the heist. Worried he'll leap into a portal and follow you? Break his legs before you go. That way he suffers the humiliation of having to explain to The Ancient One how he failed to stop the theft (damn I'd make a great supervillain). But if the pages are as powerful as Kaecilius believes (and they are, remember), then leaving survivors behind becomes irrelevant, surely?

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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