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November 7, 2016

RE: Doctor Strange

I think the highlight of my Sunday was showing my brother a picture of Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, telling him that he blows into game cartridges to power up his special move, and watching his strained, despair-riddled reaction.  I consider it sweet revenge for him effectively dropping Final Fantasy 13-2 into my lap once upon a time.

Huh?  This isn’t a post about Kamen Rider or Final Fantasy?  It’s about a recent Marvel movie?  Who cares about that?

…Okay, let’s talk about Doctor Strange.  Via a lickety-split post.  No spoilers, so come on down.

So in case you haven’t heard (of the movie, or the character at large), here’s the rub.  Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon, famed and revered for his nigh-superhuman acts of life-saving.  The tradeoff, of course, is that he’s gotten a swelled head because of it.  He’s arrogant, selfish, and just a generally unpleasant person, to the point where you have to wonder if he even cares about saving people.  But things go awry when he gets into a car accident; the doctor ends up getting surgery to save his life, ironically, but there’s irrevocable damage done.  His hands have been ruined, and he can never perform another surgery.

Since his whole life is based around his neurosurgeon swagger, Strange ain’t havin’ that.  So he becomes obsessed with finding a treatment -- and turns up empty-handed (ha) while burning bridges with everyone near him and blowing virtually every penny he has.  Luckily, his quest leads him to a remote section of Nepal; there, he stumbles upon a secret sect of magical guardians.  Strange takes up residence to find a way to heal his hands -- but in exchange, he’s roped into a conflict that has the fate of every world in the multiverse (or at least Earth, I guess) on the line.

Okay, so cards on the table: is Doctor Strange a good movie?  In my opinion, of course it is.  But it’s not quite as simple a matter as “is it good or bad”.  It never is, but it’s truer than ever with this new entry in the MCU.

The Marvel movies have been bumping around for almost a decade now, which brings with it a lot of expectations.  Some of those are good, for sure; still, you don’t get to putz around at the top of the box office without having a few million eyes on you.  To be more precise: whether you’re judging by the shakeups in Captain America: Civil War or the multi-year command of the silver screen these movies have held, the time has come for greater scrutiny.  If it hasn’t already, of course; regardless, Marvel needs to start stepping up its game and proving conclusively that it deserves its place.  Even if it hasn’t happened yet (or now -- and even that’s up for debate), at some point being “good” won’t be “good enough”.

But as a staunch defender and aficionado of the MCU, let me say this to start: I’m not sure if Doctor Strange is the best of the Marvel movies to date, or ever, or has set a new benchmark.  With that in mind, I’m convinced that it’s absolutely the most dramatic MCU entry.

A lot of that comes from Strange himself.  There are points throughout this movie -- and plenty of them -- that are absolutely painful to watch.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance plays into that; he’s able to make Strange seem like a complete tool in some scenes, and someone you want to give a hug -- and desperately -- in others.  The character is supposed to get his comeuppance in a cautionary tale against hubris and ambition, so it’s natural to see our hero at his best and worst.  Highs and lows.  The combination of Strange and Cumberbatch leads to lows that make Challenger Deep look like a saucer of milk.

Strange isn’t the only good character in the mix, though.  Once he begins his training to master the mystic arts, he comes in close contact with warriors like the stone-faced Wong, the ever-dedicated Mordo, and of course his mentor The Ancient One.  It’s hard to say which character is my favorite of the bunch, because they all have their strong suits.  Going strictly by plot relevance, though, I’d give it to The Ancient One; the bald-headed mistress is in tune with the magical world, but not so much that she’s without humanity.  Or faults, for that matter; some late-game developments help inject some thematic heft into the characters and the story at large, and I’m thankful for it.

But once again, the villain in a Marvel movie is hardly worth writing about.  Another mystic disciple wants to get his hands on some advanced powers, which is fine and dandy.  Even so, I get the feeling that he’ll be forgotten pretty handily within the month; I had trouble remembering his name during my viewing of the movie, so that should tell you all you need to know about his lasting impression.  Granted there’s still more going on with the villains this time around; I won’t say how, but those who know about the comics solely through video games are in for a mahvel-ous treat.

Also, I’m hard-pressed to think of an MCU entry with a better way to defeat the bad guys.  So that’s a point in its favor.

Since this is basically a knee jerk reaction post, I still need time to mull over and think critically about the movie.  Even so, I think I already know what my biggest gripe is: some of the tricks and trappings of the Marvel movies end up hurting Doctor Strange.  People have come to expect lots of jokes and lightheartedness from these movies; to be clear, that stuff is still in this movie (and it’s hard to, at the very least, not crack a smile).  The tradeoff is that some of it feels like it’s placed in inappropriate spots -- like the moviemakers felt like they had to have a joke, instead of letting it come in naturally.  Like I said, this is a dramatic movie with a ton of weight behind it; jamming in a wisecrack or stripping certain scenes of their quiet/heaviness does more harm than good.

There’s also a part of me that wonders if Doctor Strange would be better-served if it just dropped the villain aspect entirely.  Seeing the would-be Sorcerer Supreme struggle -- with his condition, and eventually with the mysteries of magic -- is worth the price of admission in its own right.  There are some powerful scenes without a single punch thrown.  So was it truly necessary to have a major threat, or a band of baddies, or big dumb action scenes, when I’m entranced by the plight of a decisively-flawed hero?

Well, I say as much, but I’m no pedant.  The movie pretty much starts out with a fight scene featuring kung fu magic, and that alone was enough to get me amped up for the rest of the runtime.  I can’t go into detail here for fear of stumbling into Spoiler Town, North Dakota, but I can say that there’s some very fancy action on display here.  The environments also get some bigger play here than they have in Marvel movies past.  If you’ve seen trailers or promo materials, then you know what I’m talking about.  If you don’t?  Let’s just say that someone decided to try and one-up Christopher Nolan -- and then one-up the one-up.

In general, though, one of the strongest aspects of Doctor Strange is the visuals.  It’s a slick-looking movie on multiple fronts, with some affecting shots and imagery.  Even though every scene isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with color, there are minutes-long sequences featuring some of the most elaborate, most insane visuals you’ll ever see in a mainstream, multimillion-dollar blockbuster.  I’d imagine some of it might give kids in the audience nightmares; not every generation has been desensitized by the boat scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, after all.  But hey, terrifying imagery is better than no imagery.

And with that, I think I’ll cut it short for now.  I was going to upload another post on JoJo, but seeing as how this is fresh on my mind, I’ll go ahead and push that back.  You can look forward to more in-depth thoughts on Doctor Strange soon (ideally this Thursday), so I’ll be sure to provide as much as I can.  In the meantime, you make sure to see the movie if you’ve got the time or interest to form your own opinions.  Voltech pro tip, though: make sure you sit through all of the credits for the extra scene.  Seriously, I cannot believe that people are still walking out of the theater at this point before the names even start rolling.

As a final thought, I’ll say this: yes, I wholeheartedly recommend a viewing of Doctor Strange.  IS it the greatest Marvel movie?  That’s debatable, and everyone’s going to have their own answer.  But I’ll at least argue that it’s a good movie, regardless of the pedigree (or baggage) associated with the brand.  It’s by no means perfect or mind-blowing, and trips over itself at a few crucial spots, but when you take the good and the bad, the net worth still leaves it well in the black.  That opinion’s coming from someone who enjoys these movies, so take my bias as you will.  Judge for yourself, use your best judgment, et cetera, et cetera.

Thanks for reading -- and check back soon for more Doctor Strange.  And not JoJo, sadly.  Then again, my impression of the movie is that there’s a pretty big overlap between the two.  I won’t be able to confirm it until I see the full context behind “BITE ZA DUSTO”, but…well, I have a hunch…

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