Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange ★★★½

I have grown up in the "magic is just science we don't understand yet" school of thought. There is a reasonable explanation behind every phenomena that we experience. We are free to hypothesize and create theories as to what those explanations might be. From there it is only a matter of our technology catching up with our reason, enabling us to observe and measure the world around us, which in turn provides us with the evidence we need to prove our ideas. Ultimately, this collapses a little, tiny part of the chaos of our world and renders it a little more predictable.

This is the nature of empirical science and it is certainly one lens for understanding existence as we know it. However, how do we explain the fundamental question of the being of existence in the first place? How do we explain why there is anything to observe and measure at all? This is where we enter the realm of metaphysics, where reality meets something unknowable, mystical, something that is quite possibly beyond our ability to ever comprehend.

It is this edge of reason that lets doubt seep through. It gives magic the wiggle room it needs to insert itself in the cracks of our modern brains, which have been drilled in logic, science and it's technological applications. From there magic can pry apart a small window that provides us with an alternative, fantastical perspective of reality. All it takes is to throw everything you have ever known and leave it at the door...

To the cinema as you settle into your seat to watch the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange. The comic book universes, including DC comics, are dualistic worlds where science and technology co-habitate a world underwritten by magic and the mystical. Superpowers can be engineered from the latest advances in uber-tech, as in Iron Man's suit, or like Thor's hammer be magically imbued items destined to be a superhero's weapon of choice.

Doctor Strange definitely falls into the later camp. And the movie leaves absolutely no doubt about it. The first act is extremely top heavy as it spends an inordinate amount of time showing us the deconstruction of a neurosurgeon's smug command of scientific knowledge. His knowledge and ego is unravelled as he starts to surrender to faith in a new spiritual world of belief, magic spells and enchanted relics (and by extension constructing our own suspension of disbelief, ready for the rest of the movie).

I don't watch many comic book movies and this is part of the reason why. Every film seems to waste the entire first act or two illustrating it's characters and the part of the comic book universe that they inhabit. And it is done with such heavy brushstrokes that I inevitably end up bored senseless. In the case of Doctor Strange, these sections were actually a little less painful because he is not one of the mainstream characters. His mythos has not already been etched into the popular consciousness which made a little more fresh and somewhat less unnecessary. Still, it could have been sketched out with a little more economy instead of dragging on as long as it did.

The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange was a wise move. He perfectly embodies the role of the egotistical, know-it-all smart-arse at the beginning of the film. He has a half-decent comic delivery, even if the funnies were a little sparse and a bit dull. I imagine he is quite popular with the ladies as well. I bet that he spent a fair bit of time practicing his expressions of befuddlement and bemusement in front of the mirror, which he put to good use in the film as the illusion of his reason was dismantled as the plot progresses. Tilda Swinton as the Yoda/Kung Fu Master/King Mob (she has a shaved head...) character was phenomenal as always, that woman can do anything. Although, Mads Mikkelsen as the bad ass was a bit weak and still-born.

Of course, the big payoff for these films are the special effects and action sequences and this film does not disappoint. But, this is were I am a spoil sport again, I find these big action sequences a bit of a yawn as well. They are so CGI driven that I feel like I am watching a bunch of pretty pictures without any real stakes involved. Unless a real life stunt man is in danger of a serious head injury, action sequences seem to have a limited ability to create much of a thrill for me. Shit, I just read that line again and it makes me sound like an asshole but I am sure you know what I mean, the last thing I want is for anyone to actually get hurt. However, taking full advantage of the magical world the CGI pictures sure are pretty as it provided the creators with the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild. There is one aspect of the ending which I thought was really, really well done but I don't want to spoil it. You wont be able to turn time backwards and unread it if I do.

So, maybe I didn't hate the action sequences as much as I thought before I started wring the above paragraph but there is also another problem that I have with these action sequences. The editing reduces the action to such a rapid sequence of frames and blurred motion that I end up with a kind of action blindness. Just like you need a certain kind of hearing dexterity when trying to pick out the distinct notes in a Van Halen fretboard-shredding solo, trying to follow the action in these films requires a kind of visual dexterity that is beyond me. Admittedly, that is more my problem. If I was brought up on the frenetic computer games of today I would probably be more attuned to such frenzied visual stimuli.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, even if there were some extended stretches that made me yawn. I think if these films were just tightened up a little bit they would be awesome. I have watched a couple of Shaw Brother's Chop Socky movies recently. They often seem to follow a similar narrative pattern, build the world, put the characters through some kind of transformation and then lit it rip with some phenomenal kung fu action. I have been enjoying these movies and I think the advantage that they might have over the comic book movies is that they are about 30-60 minutes shorter and are as lean as the actor's six-pack toting torsos. I should probably take some of the same advice for my reviews. Anyway, I found Doctor Strange a bit more enjoyable than some of the other Marvel films.

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