Marvel brews some strange magic

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The Marvel hit factory started off by telling us stories of modern science being used to both create and overcome evil, with Iron Man in 2008 and Captain America in 2011. Our world then had to deal with alien visitors when Thor and some unwelcome Asgardians came to visit in 2011. More aliens, all unwelcome, came through a portal in the sky in The Avengers in 2012. Soon after, we were taken on an intergalactic adventure (yes, Xandar the homeworld of the Nova Corps. is in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy) in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Now, producer Kevin Feige and team open a new door and take us into the mystical world of spells and astral planes with their latest product Doctor Strange.

Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, who is superbly cast in the lead role, this is a welcome expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Doctor Strange’s character has been teased previously in a couple of MCU movies and the connection is made very clear early on when a shot of NYC shows the Avengers building nestling among the cluster of Manhattan skyscrapers.

This is one of Marvel’s most expensive movies, with a production cost of $ 165 million, the highest for an origin story of a newly introduced character, but of course a safe bet when you consider that this is the 14th film in the MCU. The previous 13 have collectively grossed $ 10 billion across the world and by now, Marvel fans will probably come out to watch even a reboot of the much-maligned Howard the Duck movie.

The film is mainly set in NYC, the home of brilliant but oh-so-charmingly-arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange. But the action moves from Nepal to London to Hong Kong during the course of the movie.

Given that we’ve had a profusion of fantasy and magic related movies in the past decade and a half, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there are some familiar tropes being recycled here. For example, Strange’s semi-sentient Cloak of Levitation behaves like something out of a Harry Potter film, a cross between that crotchety sorting hat and the invisibility cloak. Likewise, the evil being Dormammu’s representation is reminiscent of Sauron’s eye in the Lord of the Rings films. Some of the reality distortion in the city fight scenes will also seem familiar to anyone who has watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception, although I have to say I was completely immersed in the experience and found myself involuntarily tilting my body in response to some of the changes in perspective.

Having said that, the whole is greater than the sum of its recycled parts and it was beautifully topped off by the Hong Kong fight sequence set-piece. It uses some of the most inventive reality-bending concepts seen on screen since The Matrix; latching on to objects moving backwards in time and using them as vehicles and weapons is a pretty neat trick!

Much has been written about the ‘whitewashing’ of a key character; The Ancient One ended up becoming this bald white woman instead of this ancient Asian man. But when actually watching the movie, I was so taken up by Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the character that she didn’t seem out of place.

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What did dissatisfy me was the portrayal of Kamar-Taj, the hidden retreat where the Ancient One lives. It seemed too easy to find and it had too many trainees going through standard kung fu moves to fit the description of an exclusive hideout of powerful sorcerers. Likewise, the ease with which Stephen Strange picks up his sorcery skills didn’t sit right with me. It seemed like he had been at Kamal-Taj for just a few weeks. In comparison, Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins goes through a seemingly more arduous and long drawn training regimen in Ra’s al Ghul’s Himalayan hideout and therefore his eventual transformation to Batman is far more believable.

When the Doctor Strange project was greenlit by Marvel Studios and the casting for the title character was on, I was secretly praying that Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen would be chosen for the role. I don’t know why this particular actor came to mind, but his strong facial features and ability to play stoic characters, seemed like the perfect fit for the confident/ arrogant Stephen Strange. Even though he didn’t get that part, I was thrilled at the irony and coincidence of him getting picked the chief villain Kaecilius. But of course, in blockbuster movie bad guy roles like this, there is little opportunity for actors like Mikkelsen to show their range, beyond the usual bombastic bad guy proclamations. As with all Marvel films, humour is used very effectively as a counterpoint to the action and the tension; pretty much all the characters, including even Kaecilius get at least one humourous line at they all work.

Marvel movies aren’t known for great music soundtracks, nothing like the iconic stuff that John Williams created in the 1970s for Star Wars and Superman. I do like Alan Silvestri’s OST for The Avengers and I have to say, Oscar winner and long-time Disney Pixar composer Michael Giacchino has done some good work here for Doctor Strange. While most of it is generic, the Master of the Mystic end credits sounds like it should be THE Doctor Strange theme and has this wonderful throwback feel like something from those 1970s British scifi TV shows, Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel.

Speaking of which, as usual, do stay through to watch the mid- and end-credits. You’ll know which MCU movie Doctor Strange will have a guest appearance in next and you’ll also know who will be his next adversary.

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