Film of the Week: Doctor Strange
At no point in Doctor Strange does anyone exclaim, like they used to in the comic, “By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!” Apart from that, there is nothing remotely disappointing about this new Marvel superhero vehicle. And I speak as someone for whom disappointment with superhero cinema had become a sad fact of life, until I simply gave up on expecting anything at all. For a long while, the genre—whether Marvel- or DC-derived—seemed to have ossified into a matter of, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz concisely put it, “things crashing into other things (and) people smashing each other into buildings.” But over the last year, I found myself hoping against hope that the Doctor Strange movie would be worth watching. Sure enough, it’s a pleasure.
As drawn by Steve Ditko, who created the baroque look for this sorcery-themed comic series back in 1963, Doctor Strange was one of two authentically psychedelic Marvel titles of the 1960s, the other being, for a brief period, spy series Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. As drawn by Jim Steranko, Nick Fury was at the modernist end of Marvel’s spectrum, but at the retro end was Ditko’s decidedly eerie artwork. His Doctor Strange felt genuinely mind-bending in its depictions of parallel universes and the monstrous entities who inhabited them, but was also somewhat old-school in its decorativeness, with a distinct touch of Aubrey Beardsley and Art Deco in its evocation of elements variously liquid, mineral, and vegetal. If Fury’s future-tech espionage world was an exciting, glamorous, and sleek world to visit, Strange’s universe was somewhere you would never choose to go to except with a qualified necromancer as escort; it was at once airy and tactile, vaporous and fibrous, dream-like and the stuff of screaming nightmare (in fact, one of Strange’s foes was Nightmare personified).
Directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still), Doctor Strange doesn’t entirely capture the otherworldly feel of Ditko’s craftsmanship, but the director certainly gets elements of the artist’s look, not least in the depiction of a certain, very distinctive round window intersected with arcs, the signature design feature of the Doctor’s Bleecker Street sanctum. Doctor Strange also has the first Marvel movie hero I can think of who—instead of looking not quite right, as a result of fancy-shmancy costume updating and enhancement—actually looks more like the character than the drawn original. The slightly wan sophistication and weary urbanity exuded by Benedict Cumberbatch as the magician in training feel so right that by the time the Doctor has acquired his nattily bohemian goatee and swirling cape, Cumberbatch actually looks and feels stranger than Strange.
Scripted by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill, the film follows the origin story of July 1963’s Strange Tales No. 110 with due respect rather than slavishly. Stephen Strange is a masterful brain surgeon whose Achilles heel is his cold arrogance; or rather, his flaw is that, brilliant as he is, he’s also dumb enough to use his cell phone while driving at top speeds on winding mountain roads in the pouring rain (a lot of doctors smoke too—what can you do?). As a result, he winds up with those precision-tool hands of his shattered, and he seeks a cure; super-rationalist though he is, in his desperation he’ll even try the spiritual path, seeking out a fabled miracle haven called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal.
At this point, the story basically becomes an adult Harry Potter with mystic-orientalist décor. Strange signs up at what is basically Hogwarts East, a school of dark arts run by a principal even more venerable than Dumbledore, an androgynous figure supposedly of Celtic origins known as The Ancient One, who—as played with impeccably urbane grace by Tilda Swinton—should really be referred to respectfully as The One of a Certain Age. Strange starts out thoroughly humbled as the bumbling tyro among smarter, less lippy disciples; then, as so often happens in these apprenticeship myths, the dunce becomes the star pupil, the Sorcerer Supreme, no less. He even gets his star qualities acknowledged when singled out for special treatment by an inanimate item of clothing that comes alive with anthropomorphic mischief; in Potter’s case it’s a smirking hat, here it’s a silent but feisty glad rag, the Cloak of Levitation, which not only allows Strange to fly but also makes neat work of beating up heavies with its kickass hem.
One of the things that distinguishes Doctor Strange is the quality of its casting—not that the combination of Hopkins, Hiddleston, Portman, Elba, and Skarsgård did that much to lift Kenneth Branagh’s ho-hum Thor. But Derrickson wholeheartedly milks the European-ness of his cast, which also includes Brits Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong (as Wong, of course) and Danish Mads Mikkelsen. The movie’s Europeans, in fact—as distinct from the blah parts played by Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg—are otherworldly, a bit high-flown and sophisticated, but also basically on the side of good, except for Mikkelsen’s renegade warlock. Mikkelsen is particularly good value here, basically reprising the taut-mouthed, basilisk-gazing Mean Mr M. that we know so well from Casino Royale and TV’s Hannibal. But here he also sports a touch of CGI makeup that surrounds his eyes with pits of crackling embers, making him look literally ashen-faced—not so much kohl-eyed as coal-eyed.
Some reviews have criticized Doctor Strange for being narratively routine: hero loses old powers, works hard to acquire even fancier ones, saves world from awful menace, but At What Cost . . . ? Actually, the plot needn’t detain us much, except insofar as it efficaciously sets up a sequel in which underused Ejiofor will presumably come into his own as renegade magician Mordo. As for the characterization, it’s all fairly sketchy, but it’s pulled off by the actors with insouciance, grace, and a touch of Shakespearean loftiness—not least by Swinton, whose non-stereotypical, non-Eastern sage comes across with the poised, patrician coolness of a London PR executive who has abandoned worldly things to become a top-range feng shui coach.
But none of this matters as much as the special effects. Now, this might strike you as hardly a scoop with regard to a Marvel movie. Yet, to say that the virtue of Doctor Strange hangs on its effects is an underestimation. Anyone looking forward to the film will have fantasized that it would do justice to the dimension-hopping weirdness of the original by pushing the visuals to the limit. Indeed, Derrickson, DP Ben Davis, production designer Charles Wood, and special effects supervisor Stéphane Cerretti (whose credits include The Prestige and Guardians of the Galaxy) have not merely pushed the boat out but turned the boat inside out and twisted it into a Moebius-strip replica of itself.
The first show-stopping CGI moment—so spectacular that it’s almost shocking how casually the film seems to squander it right at the start—is a variation on the city-folding effect that Christopher Nolan practiced on Paris in Inception, but here pushed much further. This trick is a speciality of Mikkelsen’s bad sorcerer Kaecilius, and it involves taking ornate surfaces such as the facades of buildings and rolling them up like parchments, while decorative cornices swirl and seemingly solid floors turn into swirling vortexes. Another dazzling effect makes thin air appear to crystallize and fragment, as if turning into a field of cracked mirror. The film is good on textures of all sorts: in one scene, while Strange lies unconscious on a hospital gurney, his astral self leans out of an airborne mass of what looks like iridescent cellophane wrap.
Altogether, the film plays tricks with space and shape suggesting that the whole effects department puzzled over M. C. Escher illustrations and wondered if you could actually pull off those tricks in three dimensions (and better still, make them seem somehow like four, or five). One clever turn that I can’t quite begin to describe involves Mikkelsen’s body seeming to slice, then reconstitute itself, although it’s actually stranger and more complicated than that. The glory of this film’s effects is that everything is always more complicated, a bit harder to fathom; VFX fans and mathematicians alike will mull over the film frame by frame to figure out exactly what’s going on spatially and geometrically. Indeed, Doctor Strange seems to represent the point at which the art of CGI and the discipline of imagining visual images spatially seems to have reached a sublime degree of 3D complexity. The effects department on this film should rename itself Non-Euclidean Light and Magic.
My favorite sequence, early in our mage’s apprenticeship, comes across like a little self-enclosed miniature version of Ken Russell’s Altered States. It’s a sort of disembodied rollercoaster ride in which Strange is zapped out of his body, out of earthly consciousness, and into a dimension of the polymorphously perverse in which his hands sprout more hands fractally, his face suddenly turns out to be made of hands (as if in an anatomically themed painting by the baroque master Arcimboldo), and we suddenly fly into Cumberbatch’s face and down an infinite-regress funfair slide of mouths within mouths within mouths. The whole routine is a mind-scrambling experience laid on by the Ancient One for Strange’s enlightenment and for our amusement: the wily old sorcerer is nothing if not a special-effects moviemaker herself. At one point, she explains to Strange that what non-initiates credulously refer to as “spells” are in fact systems for reprogramming consciousness, or something along those lines: they are, she says, “the source code that shapes reality.” She’s not just a moviemaker, then, but a guru of the theory and practice of CGI itself, and this movie’s mad geometries are a fabulous demonstration of the truly exalted possibilities of the dark digital arts.