Marvel’s strangest movie yet is here

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LIFE - By Bob Strauss South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group Con­tact Bob Strauss at rstrauss@scng.com or @bs­critic on Twit­ter.

Strange things are hap­pen­ing in the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse.

“Doc­tor Strange,” the 14th film in the in­ter­lock­ing su­per­hero saga, drops to­day. And it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from all those Avengers-re­lated movies.

First, it ac­knowl­edges the rest of the MCU even less, ar­guably, than “Guardians of the Gal­axy” did. There are maybe three ref­er­ences, if you count one of the end cred­its tag se­quences. Stan Lee makes an­other cameo, and that’s about it.

Fore­most, this thing looks as hal­lu­cino­genic as Doc­tor Strange cre­ator Steve Ditko’s draw­ings did when the Master of the Mys­tic Arts was in­tro­duced to comic books in 1963. Also like the comic, the movie is ob­sessed with ter­ri­fy­ing other di­men­sions, and it has more pro­nounced spir­i­tual wis­dom than the comics — as well as any other Hol­ly­wood movie you could think of — did.

And while it’s also loaded with the ac­tion and laughs we ex­pect from a Marvel pro­duc­tion, this Scott Der­rick­son-di­rected film has the most un­pleas­ant hero the MCU has un­leashed yet.

“We al­ways knew that part of that story — in those three pan­els in that first eight pages and other ver­sions of the Strange ori­gin — there was that down­fall,” notes Marvel Stu­dios Pres­i­dent Kevin Feige. ”Much more so than (Iron Man) Tony Stark, right? There’s a sim­i­lar­ity, writ­ten by Stan in the day, of a suc­cess­ful per­son un­der­goes a shock­ing in­jury and emerges as a dif­fer­ent per­son.

“But Strange is un­lik­able in the comics, which we wanted to be true to,” Feige con­tin­ues. “And that’s one of the rea­sons we wanted Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch so bad. Look at his Sher­lock, look at ‘The Imi­ta­tion Game.’ ... He’s even played Ju­lian As­sange! In those roles, he’s not al­ways lik­able. He does ev­ery­thing he can to push peo­ple away, but there is some­thing about him that you root for.”

Cum­ber­batch digs deeper into the Strange/Sher­lock Holmes com­par­isons.

“There is the cross­over of clever and ar­ro­gant, I sup­pose,” the English ac­tor says. “And worka­holic. But you know, Strange is a ma­te­ri­al­ist. He’s ego­cen­tric, yes, but he’s got charm and he’s witty. He’s liked by his col­leagues, he’s had re­la­tion­ships with them. He’s not this sort of cut-off out­sider, so­cio­pathic, asex­ual ob­ses­sive that Sher­lock is. So yeah, there’s a world of dif­fer­ence, and yeah, he lives in New York and eats bagels ev­ery now and again, so that’s also dif­fer­ent.”

After the hot­shot sur­geon’s hands are wrecked in a hor­rific car ac­ci­dent, he alien­ates the few that cared for him, pri­mar­ily Dr. Chris­tine Palmer (Rachel McA­dams), as he strug­gles to find a cure. Ex­haust­ing med­i­cal sci­ence’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, Strange trav­els to Nepal, where he seeks mag­i­cal heal­ing from The An­cient One (Tilda Swin­ton in the film, an an­cient Asian man in the comics, but more on that later).

She’s more into teach­ing the Amer­i­can smar­tass how to han­dle oth­er­worldly pow­ers that we here on Earth as­so­ciate with sor­cery. An adept stu­dent, Strange is be­friended and aided by fel­low acolyte Mordo (Chi­we­tel Ejio­for in the movie, a Cen­tral Euro­pean baron in the books, but more on that ...) and the A.O.’s cranky li­brary-keeper, Wong (Bene­dict Wong in the movie, Strange’s manser­vant in the strips, BMOTL).

How­ever, rene­gade stu­dent Kae­cil­ius (TV “Han­ni­bal” Mads Mikkelsen) has stolen some sa­cred pages that en­able him to sum­mon the Dark Di­men­sion ruler Dor­mammu to our world. It falls to Strange and his al­lies to pre­vent this, and the stuff they come up with is cer­ti­fi­ably mind-bend­ing.

“I grew up read­ing Marvel Comics, and Doc­tor Strange al­ways stood out to me as a weird aber­ra­tion,” says di­rec­tor Der­rick­son (“The Ex­or­cism of Emily Rose”). “It spoke to me more than the other comics for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, the first of which was it was just so psychedel­i­cally weird and cool-look­ing. And it had darker, mys­ti­cal tones and re­ally in­ter­est­ing ideas in it.

“When it came to the vis­ual de­sign of the movie and the de­vel­op­ment of a tent-pole ac­tion movie for an au­di­ence, my goal was us­ing big-bud­get movie vis­ual ef­fects to do things that had not been done be­fore,” Der­rick­son con­tin­ues. “And to do things other than ex­plo­sions and gun­fights and mass de­struc­tion, to re­ally de­velop this idea of other di­men­sions, which is es­sen­tial to the Doc­tor Strange comics.”

So, when the A.O. sends Strange on his first Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour, as Feige calls it, and when he later con­fronts Dor­mammu on the de­mon’s own turf, they look like acid freak­outs un­seen on screen since 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Crazy stuff hap­pens on our planet, too, as the con­tend­ing mys­tics ma­nip­u­late time and turn cityscapes into shat­tered and churn­ing kalei­do­scopes that gen­er­ate grav­ity in 360 di­rec­tions.

The ly­ser­gic parts lean heav­ily on CG and were clearly in­spired by a lot of Ditko draw­ings. Feige says the fold­ing build­ing stuff can also be found in a few pan­els, but ac­knowl­edges its debt to Christo­pher Nolan’s 2010 head trip “In­cep­tion.”

“As you see in some of the wide shots in the movie, it’s not just a sin­gle city folded around,” Feige points out. “The cityscape cubes up into these is­lands; those im­ages were in the comics. Ob­vi­ously, ‘In­cep­tion’ has that mo­ment, which is amaz­ing, and that will be most peo­ple’s ref­er­ence point to it, but our at­tempt was: How do you do a chase scene through New York in a way that you have never seen be­fore, and in a way that only Doc­tor Strange or peo­ple deal­ing with what we call the Mir­ror Di­men­sion can do it.”

So, how’d the film­mak­ers do it?

“Some­times the ac­tors and stunt peo­ple were run­ning on the streets of New York,” Feige re­veals. “Some­times they were run­ning on a tread­mill on a green screen. Some­times they were on wires. Some­times you just turned the cam­era up­side down! It’s fun, right? It’s an amaz­ing bal­ance of good old-fash­ioned smoke-and-mir­rors and un­be­liev­able mod­ern tech­nol­ogy.”

Mod­ern at­ti­tudes in­formed cast­ing choices too, ac­cord­ing to Feige. That hasn’t stopped peo­ple from not­ing-that a key Asian role is oc­cu­pied by an ethe­real Bri­tish woman, though. Con­versely, few have com­mented upon the Mordo role be­ing played by an English ac­tor with Nige­rian par­ents.

“So much has been said about this, I hope peo­ple now see the movie and see why we thought Tilda would be so per­fect for this part,” Feige says of the An­cient One. “And to see what a strong — and he comes close to steal­ing the movie — char­ac­ter Wong is. He was por­trayed cer­tain ways in the comics, and we wanted to do some­thing very dif­fer­ent from that.

“But as we’ve said be­fore, we want our movies to re­flect the world as it is to­day. We want ev­ery­body to be able to come into one of our films and to see them­selves re­flected in it. That was one of the rea­sons why we wanted to make the be­stower of univer­sal wis­dom a woman.”

As for that en­light­en­ment, both teacher and stu­dent con­sider it in­te­gral to “Doc­tor Strange’s” movie ex­is­tence.

“If any­thing, maybe more than ever, we need to con­cen­trate on open­ing our minds, and in par­tic­u­lar to know­ing that our minds are ours to have some kind of per­spec­tive on,” Swin­ton re­marks when asked if the film has a 1960s spir­i­tual vibe.

“There’s some­thing re­ally rad­i­cal that’s said in this film, which is that ego and fear are things to be lived be­yond, and let’s face it, this is a hot topic. We re­ally, re­ally need peo­ple to re­mind us right now that ego and fear are not nec­es­sar­ily the only op­tion we can live through. This is such a mod­ern film for that rea­son, and I would say that’s the rea­son why it’s per­fect that it’s made now, be­cause the time is re­ally right for it.”

“You know, it’s about mind­ful­ness in a sense; I think that’s the com­mon de­riv­a­tive which has car­ried through,” Cum­ber­batch adds. “Cul­tur­ally we’re still ref­er­enc­ing that era; we al­ways will. It was a very strong mo­ment in all cul­ture. But I think you have to rein­vent the wheel slightly. You can’t just repli­cate it. This is a film for now. But I think like Tilda was say­ing, the strong­est mes­sage is the idea that you, with your mind, have the power to change your re­al­ity, and that’s a great, won­der­ful, free­ing, ego­less mes­sage. And also you do that with the idea of do­ing it for the good of oth­ers, and you’re onto a very, very good thing, as Doc­tor Strange gets to by the end of the film.”

DIS­NEY, MARVEL

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch stars in “Doc­tor Strange.”

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