Road to Infinity War – Doctor Strange, or, Started From the Bottom Now We’re Magic

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

doctorstrange2

Look, if you get Michael Stuhlbarg, you give Michael Stuhlbarg top-billing. How Marvel survived such a faux pas the world may never know.

It’s easy enough to write off Doctor Strange as magic Iron Man. Both films are origin stories about rich pricks with facial hair getting taken down a peg. Fair enough. But the humbling of Stephen Strange is so much more expansive than that of Tony Stark.

In Iron Man, Tony Stark has to reckon with, essentially, living his life in the wrong direction. By the end of the film he’s the same dude with the same skills, he just harnesses them for a different cause. He’s still an inventor. He’s still a smartass. He still struggles with egomania. But he does it in the right direction. Stephen Strange, on the other hand, is forced to reckon with that sinister insecurity that has perhaps nagged each of us in our worst moments, that he is living his life wrong. That what he believes is wrong. That what he thinks is wrong. That his ironclad existence has been made of straw all along.

In the world-expanding, black light bonanza, Timothy Leary roller coaster sequence the Ancient One sends Strange on upon their initial meeting, we watch a man’s sense of self and understanding of the universe get utterly obliterated. His quest from there is not a simple reorienting or rebranding, it’s one of rebuilding from the bottom up.

The new world in which Strange rebuilds himself is a fascinating one of charming allies, intriguing villains and fantastic visual effects.

We aren’t in 1993 anymore. Jurassic Park is, like, 100 years old. CGI is a fact of blockbuster life and usually the only time its noteworthy is when Andy Serkis is involved or it totally sucks. But the effects in Doctor Strange not only serve as a narrative catalyst for Strange’s humbling and new pursuits, they create mesmerizing fabrics and textures for this previously unexplored corner of the MCU that go beyond the typical blockbuster fair of beams and lasers and crumbling superstructures.

Of course, those visual effects would be little more than an expertly-crafted distraction were it not for the film’s cast. Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular are two of the primary reasons I’m hoping to return to the world of Doctor Strange sooner rather than later. Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen are both on point as opposing forces of mystic power that have presumably encountered the same humbling Strange is in the midst of, but have since let their egos drip back into their beliefs and perceptions.

This is a film that tosses aside better actors than most could ever hope to get. Look, no discredit to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, but having Oscar MVP Michael Stuhlbarg traipsing around the fringes of your movie is bound to coax a few daydreams out of me about what a Stuhlbarg Sorcerer Supreme might be like. Similarly, fellow dramatic powerhouse Rachel McAdams gets the Natalie Portman treatment. That said, I devoted much of my initial post on Doctor Strange to my displeasure with McAdams’ sidelining, but in rewatching the film I understand her character, Dr. Palmer, is not entirely squandered.

The good Dr. Palmer brings to the world is practical. She is a person who helps those in need that are right in front of her face. Real people, with real injuries. Dying, hurting, bleeding patients. Not the disembodied charts and stats Stephen Strange mulls over blessing with his presence. When we meet Strange his do-gooding amounts to little more than selfishness disguised as lofty innovation. Amongst the visually spectacular, physics-bending skills Strange picks up over the course of the film, he also learns what Palmer already practices – to put more stock in how you can benefit the world around you, rather than how it might benefit you.

Coming off of the unresolved philosophical divide of Civil War, Doctor Strange introduces an important, timely notion to the MCU, the idea that widening one’s perception and opening up to ideas that contradict or even dismantle your own can be an invaluable strength, rather than a haughty catalyst for conflict.

For some characteristic anti-establishment film criticism and general bemoaning of Rachel McAdams limited roll in the MCU (though, I mean, third-billing? That’s some agent):

November 8, 2016: Doctor Strange, or, Breaking Most of the Rules

Doctor Strange, or, Breaking Most of the Rules

doctorstrange

Pew pew!

Marvel’s 14th film, Doctor Strange, is all about flipping off the establishment.

After the titular Doctor Stephen Strange, the unlikeable Tony Stark of surgery, gets in a car accident that utterly destroys his hands, he scours the earth for a solution to his perpetually quaking fingers. His search brings him to the doorstep of The Ancient One and her sorcerer acolytes, who offer a solution to the limits of Strange’s body via the expansion of his mind, which it turns out, involves asking a lot of questions.

Nothing is sacred in the world of Doctor Strange. The culture of sorcery he immerses himself in is founded on questioning and redefining the rules of time and space in ways that leave the screen so cluttered with 70s prog rock special effects that it is legitimately impossible to take everything in.

But, like, in a cool way.

To The Ancient One and her ilk it seems the only certainty is the need to question anything deemed certain. Much to The Ancient One’s chagrin that rule doesn’t stop at her doorstep.

On his quest Doctor Strange is not only forced to question time and space, he’s forced to question authority and orthodoxy. He’s brought into a mystical microcosm that has torn apart the constraints of the larger world around it without ever taking too close a look at itself.

Intentionally or not Doctor Strange proves to be an incredibly appropriate superhero movie for November 2016. Its hero is ultimately tasked with never becoming stagnant. With never clinging to a worldview for the sake of towing the line. When his world as a surgeon is crushed around him he is presented with an alternative that shows him the flaws of his old life. But that alternative is not without flaws. Nor is the alternative to that alternative. Doctor Strange’s strongest attribute isn’t his newly-acquired understanding of the mystic arts or his newly-acquired ability to thinly veil his own jackassery, it’s his insistence on never taking any one sound bite from any one talking head at face value.

But despite the thematic through line of obliterating conventions and questioning dogma in spectacular 3D glory the film falls back on a particularly vexing trope I’d thought we’d moved past. The love interest for the sake of a love interest.

Rachel McAdams plays Dr. Christine Palmer, an ER physician who has a strained, romantic history with Stephen Strange. Rachel McAdams is great. She’s Rachel McAdams. True Detective Season 2. Spotlight. The script for Doctor Strange relegates her to what feels like a mark on some sort of blockbuster checklist you’d think the Sorcerer Supreme would have dismantled a thousand times over by now. This isn’t simply the case of an inexplicable kiss, à la Jurassic World or Civil War. It isn’t just the romance that feels artificial, it’s the entire character. Dr. Palmer has limited screen time and even more limited impact on the story overall. McAdams does as much as any performer could in the limited space the script gives her, but at best her character is written into the film as a benchmark audiences can use to tell Doctor Strange isn’t as big of a dick as he used to be. She ultimately feels like the girl shoehorned into a “boy” movie so that girlfriends will go too, a notion I’d hoped characters like Peggy Carter or Gamora or Black Widow had rendered obsolete. She isn’t given an arc or even afforded sufficient time to believably react to and acquaint herself with Strange’s new abilities (her introduction to and acceptance of Strange’s mystical powers is rushed to the point of feeling like an encounter with a new hair cut) and the movie suffers for it. That this is the capacity to which an actress of McAdam’s caliber joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe is upsetting, and a waste of talent. The debut of the new Wonder Woman trailer before the movie didn’t exactly lessen the blow.

Doctor Strange is a lot of fun. Its special effects are seriously next level. Its humor is on point. Its Mads is Mikkelsen. Strange’s consistent questioning of authority, establishments and institutions gives him, and his debut film, a unique and thought-provoking flavor. But an otherwise fun and exciting film is left with a few scuffs by the conventions it didn’t bother questioning. With any luck little kids will leave Doctor Strange with a healthy skepticism and a simulated LSD-trip hangover rather than antiquated ideas of gendered film.

 

Broken News, or, Spotlight

Spotlight

True Detective Season Three

Coworkers no longer ask me if I saw that story on the news last night because my answer is always the same.

No.

Of course I didn’t see that story on the news last night. That would entail watching the news. Why would I ever do that?

When it’s not rampant irresponsible speculation it’s fear mongering, and when it’s not fear mongering the news is the verbal snuff of an overly-manicured talking head fleshing out the fine details of whatever tragedy is within reach.

On its face Spotlight, director Thomas McCarthy’s film following the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, is an obvious condemnation of corruption within institutionalized religion. It’s a fantastic conspiracy thriller about what happens when human beings elevate an institution above other human beings. But it’s also something of a ray of hope in terms of what the media can be at its best.

Spotlight follows the investigation behind a news piece painstakingly constructed to combat a problem. The piece at the center or the film didn’t set out to fan the flames of fear or keep the wheels of baseless speculation turning, it set out to right a wrong, to improve upon the status quo.

Crazy, right? But Spotlight isn’t set in some nostalgic golden age of journalism before the 24-hour news cycle and the echo chamber of cable news. It takes place just over ten years ago. The film doesn’t have some sort of naïve view of journalism either. The reporters depicted in the film are far from perfect. Healthy senses of suspicion can all too easily give way to dismissiveness. Competition between publications is an ever present source of motivation. No one is hiding the pursuit of a story here. But the sum total of the journalistic pursuit in Spotlight wasn’t some sort of shoddy map to paranoia. The story in question was an important one. It was one that needed to be told. Can we say the same about any piece of news we’ve made small talk about with our coworkers today?

Spotlight reminded me of something I had forgotten in the cynicism of an election year: news doesn’t have to be a nonstop stream of content primarily functioning to rabidly grasp for eyeballs and ratings. It can and has been a vital force for positive societal change.

The Man, or, True Detective Season Two

Just a couple of happy campers.

Just a couple of happy campers.

True Detective’s second season was built on the Shakespearian adage “all the world’s a stage.” Its four protagonists were assigned a part to play long before we the audience ever met them, a role that they can never embody, an impossible ideal of masculinity that dares to be aspired to.

The Man.

True Detective Season Two holds up the myth of masculinity that so often drives the behavior of the modern man and in no uncertain terms shouts “this is not working.”

It’s hardly clearer than when Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro visits his father. Troubled over his difficult relationship with his own son, Ray sits beside his old man, who stews in regret and vice, before the televised black and white alter of Kirk Douglas hocking the masculine Hollywood nonsense that has two generations contorted into impossible poses as they desperately try to fit into a fictional mold they can never match.

Ray’s life becomes defined by a moment in which he pursues vengeance that isn’t his to have, but no person, no culture, no natural law would dare deny him. He commits a sin that knocks his entire existence off course because that is the character he is meant to play. He does what his father would have done, what a Kirk Douglas character would have done, what he is instilling in his son should be done. He does what The Man would do and his entire existence is derailed for it.

Everybody Loves Raymond

Everybody Loves Raymond

Yet despite seeping through generation after broken generation The Man somehow remains undeniable. Paul Woodrugh doggedly clings to the ideal at the expense of his own personal happiness and mental health. He possesses no shortage of evidence that The Man is not a character he can ever be happy portraying and yet he chases the myth like a greyhound after a lure, perpetually behind, sprinting just to keep up. It’s telling that Woodrugh seems most at ease in the moments he is least burdened by having to act his societal part: guns blazing, fighting for his life. Staying alive while outnumbered and outgunned proves a far more possible task for Woodrugh than becoming The Man he thinks he’s supposed to be.

Frank Semyon chases a similar lure, some nebulous, undefined state of achievement that’s only concrete characteristic seems to be that it is consistently beyond his current circumstances. Time and time again Frank has the opportunity to leave well enough alone and settle into a comfortable role, but settling is not what The Man does. The Man does not lie down, he presses on, The Man ascends via whatever cobbled-together means he can concoct.

Womanhood provides Ani Bezzerides no sanctuary from the toxicity of The Man. Her life is spent playing the character that could have saved her from a bleak childhood trauma. She lives every moment as if the next could see her brought back in time to relive the pivotal moment of her girlhood because what happened to her as a child would never have happened to The Man.

One way or another all four characters learn that the role they’re aspiring to does not work. The Man is not a person. The Man is not a human being. The Man is a fiction, a two-dimensional character unattainable beyond the eye of a camera. The Man doesn’t live a complete life. The Man is not fulfilled. The Man is not secure. The Man is make-believe.

The waning moments of True Detective’s season finale are quiet and hopeful. The Man has taken its toll, but there’s an understanding arrived upon. An understanding that The Man is an old way, a fading religion from a dying age, and in the season’s final moments there is the spark of potential for something new.

Though the imminent protagonists of True Detective’s presumed third season likely won’t get the memo.