I am not known to make a dash to see the first showing of any film starring the posh geek’s pin up, Benedict Cumberbatch. I think the jury is still out on the breadth of his acting talent. All I can see and hear is a perfected Shakespearian delivery and an endless imperiousness in every role.
Nor am I known for loving every appearance of that cold queen of purest icebergs, Tilda Swinton. But the producers of Dr Strange have pulled a fast one on my prejudices and been smart enough to add two fine actors to the mix, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen. They signal it might be worth my £9, and petrol to reach the Vue cinema.
The trailer also put me off; another Marvel Comics Mr Joe Schmo turned superman by reclusive monks halfway up a mountain in far off Tibet. How many lonely dull dudes do they fix? And have they a line of them waiting outside the temple? Invariably, the dull dude gets transformed in two quick sequences of marshal arts, spends a time troubled by his new powers, and then comes to terms with them only to give his admiring girlfriend the knock back. Being super human means not enjoying plain vanilla affection.
Disney isn’t good at quirky, strange, or surreal. The studio has tried its hand at the style but never quite gotten to grips with it. The original TRON fell off the ratings list even with Jeff Bridges starring in it, and the recent sequel did little better.
Disney is the producers of Dr Strange but we don’t really get strange, much less PhD degree levels of weirdness. What we are given is lavish psychedelic pop-art in service of a very old comic-book story.
The attractions this time for the easy of entertainment are stone-faced Cumberbatch as a surgeon of self-willed greatness, and the most extravagant trip-outs that money can buy.
The story is too familiar to raise interest, a diverting jumble of action-fantasy and head-shop screen saver. Cityscapes fold in on themselves, à la Escher and Inception; we are rushed down an umbilicus of light as in 2001 or Contact; hands from nowhere seize the terrified protagonist, as in Repulsion.
But here blockbuster cynicism holds attention. Those cities keep folding, as if Manhattan were an advanced Origami exercise, while the characters vault from one skyscraper to the next. Here are kaleidoscopic visions of the everyday gone fractal, geometry splintering and then endlessly replicating. Yes, the acting takes second place, as it must in any superhero farrago. The history of the superhero movie has been, in part, a history of total breakdown of filmmakers’ interest in depth of characterisation, and more for collapsed time and spatial geography.
Director Scott Derrickson, (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil) makes all this skip right along, with half-good jokes and some human feeling, but there’s nothing he can do to distract from the errors of conception at the film’s heart.
Doctor Strange is another movie about another boring white man braving a garishly mysterious East, where monks who have devoted lifetimes to a discipline will train him to become the biggest franchise ever – maybe.
Cumberbatch wrings laughs out of both Strange’s lack of interest in the people around him and his tendency to get turned on by his own power, yet strangely – there’s that word again – strangely convincing when stirred to heroic action.
For all its hash stoned splendour, Doctor Strange is the fleetest, breeziest superhero movie since Deadpool. In a strange way that’s a plus, as are the villains – a squad of Dark-Side Jedi, evil samurai of Swinton’s baldy Ancient One. They never crowd the narrative and thankfully don’t speechify – a small mercy. Comic book devotees will love it. Personally, I’d rather have donated my £9 to a good cause for Scotland’s independence.