Friday, November 11, 2016

Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson)

Middling Strange

Scott Derrickson's new fantasy is the latest stone added to the intimidating wall that Marvel and Disney are presently constructing (in this case Marvel producing, Disney distributing) and as far as bricks go this one isn't too different: a bit quadrilateral, a little inert, a tad dense.

Same might be said of the source material, the comic book written by Stan Lee and conceived and drawn by Steve Ditko. If anything the movie improves on the comic book: Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch on the big screen) starts out as a dead serious sorcerer with a hidden tragic past (he used to be a hotshot surgeon whose hands were crushed in a car accident, and has since acquired magical powers from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton on the big screen)). Stephen is seriously humor deficient; he doesn't quip like Peter Parker, isn't an entertaining jerk like Tony Stark (at least as Robert Downey Jr. has since interpreted the character), isn't even as witty or witheringly hostile as Cumberbatch's own best-known character Sherlock Holmes (the actor has to do a lot of smouldering to suggest his character might actually be worthy of our interest). 

The script helps. Some. A few quips here there, some twists and turns in urban topology a la Christopher Nolan, a generally fast-moving plot; perhaps the movie's comic high point is a semi-sentient cape smart enough to pull Strange out of danger and towards a more effective weapon (a kind of elaborate rattrap suit), wipe the blood off his face when he's too distracted. 

What's missing of course is what made the original comic book so memorable: not Stan Lee's ponderous psuedo-biblical dialogue but Ditko's outrageous artwork--circles of light and energy, fascinatingly spiked; other dimensions where Strange and his adversaries don't so much float as glide, gracefully posed (toes artfully pointed) as mermaids in a Melies silent, or stand on a vast invisible plain.

The occult energy being flung about in Ditko's panels are no digital light-and-sound show: they have a unique presence, like Jack Kirby's famous Krackle--they possess weight, demonstrate visible substance, have interesting at times organic-looking surfaces (from crystalline to patterned swirls to lizard scales to what if you blink hard enough looks like Nerf foam) and the most unlikely color palette (I see ripe avocado and is that a splash of lemonade in one corner?). Derrickson's movie doles out standard-issue electrical discharges, with what look like revolving digital displays borrowed from virtual reality games a la Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (a  funnier movie by the way) spinning around wrists and fingers. Marvel is attempting to merge fantasy and science fiction, apparently, losing along the way the distinctive flavor of each genre.

Ditko's dark dimensions have skies of deep purple or dank red, sometimes and most daringly a panel of pure white.* Filmmakers nowadays depict other dimensions as having the blackness of outer space, decorated with your standard-issue scattering of stars; Ditko mostly used pure colors, reserving an actual star field for one of his most memorable characters, Eternity (basically a cutout in the shape of a human figure through which we glimpse the universe). 

*(Why is white so impressive? Because it hides nothing--if you don't draw something interesting in the forefront of your white panel, you have nothing--and Ditko used white panels a lot. Plus special effects or visual tricks against a white background are more difficult to pull off (ask a magician)

Also there's this.)

Was it trippy? You bet; perhaps the oddest thing about Ditko's out-there imagery was that none of it came from hallucinogenic drugs (he doesn't use and even hates the culture or so he claims); it's more a gifted artist approximating what you might see and feel in a head trip, and as such coming up with colors and textures and shapes no one had ever thought of before since O maybe Salvador Dali** (if you google around for Ditko's artwork you can see what I mean). 

**(Of course another influence is Ayn Rand--but that was later, after he'd left Marvel Comics, and I can't say it was an improvement)  

Meanwhile we have this movie: a passable entertainment and an improvement on everthing Lee and Ditko did--except what made Ditko mindbendingly unique.

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