Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Strange Days Indeed

The Doctor will see you now.

Doctor Strange, the latest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, opened in the UK today.

I've been fan and a reader of Doctor Strange for years, so I've been looking forward to this movie for a while. My first comics as a kid, before the realms of 2000AD even, was a British title called Super Spider-Man and the Titans. It was a Brit reprint of a number of Marvel titles, printed landscape - a double page spread each side, so four pages of US comic across when open - and in black and white. I was a massive Spider-Man nerd as a kid, but it didn't stop me reading all of the contents of this title.

Inside was the continuing stories of Spidey, just at the time when it was amazing - the death of Gwen Stacey, the Green Goblin, the Spider-mobile, and yet another attempt by Doc Ock to marry Aunt May. I loved it.

Also inside this weekly was pages of Thor, Captain America, and tucked away at the back was Doctor Strange, master of the mystic arts.

UK Marvel reprint comic "Super Spider-man and the Titans" 1976

At this time in the 70's, Doctor Strange was... well, strange to say the least. It was right in the middle of what most Marvel fans would consider the peak of Strange's run, and it was certainly the coolest art I'd ever seen. I don't know how "current" the issues being reprinted were in the UK, but at this time in the 70's, Super Spider-Man and the Titans was printing the Strange stories illustrated by the legendary Gene Colan.

Much like the art of Spider-man at that time, the artwork in black and white was glorious. If anything, the colour may have ruined it. John Romita Sr.'s Spidey was amazing and the definitive Peter Parker for me. Gene Colan's Doctor Strange was astounding but freaky as hell.

There have always been scary images that freaked me out as a kid. I was always a bit sensitive like that. The cover of IT. The Doctor Who annual 1977 with its weird art. And the sequence of Doctor Strange when he's off in the astral plane, in a weird dream sequence where his head pops off like a wax dummy and bounces down the stairs. Totally freaked out.

It was one of those things were you're a little wigged, but you can't stop looking at it. I wasn't entirely sure what the hell was going on, but it was mesmerising.

Of course, time passed. I grew. Moved on to 2000AD, Starlord, Tornado, then discovered Sandman and Shade: The Changing Man, Watchmen, etc... But that's another story.

Fast forward a bit to the mid 90's, and my future wife says that she's a big fan of Cloak and Dagger. She has the entire run of Strange Tales featuring Cloak and Dagger / Doctor Strange and I had some time on my hands after finishing art college. I blasted through every issue. Excellent!!

But again, things went quiet for me on the Strange front. Thankfully, it has returned recently with the art of one of my favourite artists, Chris Bachalo. (Been a fan of his since his work on my fave comic of all time - Shade: The Changing Man). And awesome stuff it is too.

Anyway, you didn't want to hear about my comic history, you wanted to know if the Doctor Strange movie is good.


To cut to the chase - yes. It is. Very good.

The movie follows the story of the comic fairly faithfully. Strange is a neurosurgeon, and a brilliant one. Problem is, he knows it. He's arrogant, self centred, and over confident. He's smug, rich and career-focused. When he is busy looking at his phone while driving (let that be a lesson to you all), he piles his car up and in the accident his hands are crushed. Countless surgeries and all of Strange's money later, he still can't stop the shakes from the nerve damage.

Just like the comics, his desperation to get his old life back takes him East, where he is taken in by The Ancient One where he learns that opening his mind can lead to a kind of spiritual healing that will give him his hands, but also open up the realms of magic and sorcery. And when the Ancient One opens it up, you get some of the trippiest and weirdest visuals you'll ever see.

There's the inevitable villain, played by Mads Mikkelsen (who, in my opinion, gave us the greatest Bond villain, and the coolest Hannibal Lecter ever) and various levels of training and events that gives Doctor Strange his abilities, his cloak of levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, and the Sanctum Sanctorum.

In fact, if you look at it from a distance, it really does play out through the expected beats of an origin story, and it doesn't really surprise. What does surprise is how well such a basic story is presented.

Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange, is best known for his horror work (Deliver Us From Evil, Exorcism of Emily Rose and one of the scariest movies I've ever seen, Sinister). It's rumoured Dan Harmon was brought on to lighten the tone of what could have been a very dark movie. The humour is pretty good too, showing that Marvel really know how to make an entertaining superhero movie with thrills, scares and light moments - not getting mired in the gloom.

Visually, the movie is stunning. Taking inspiration from Steve Ditko's original art, and movies like The Matrix and Inception, the world twists and bends, folds in on itself and changes orientation in a fluid and mindboggling way that is very cool but is never too confusing. It looks massively complex, but you still understand what's going on.

Being a Strange fan from my childhood, I never thought I'd ever see a fight on the astral plane, or the Dark Dimension on screen, so this is a dream come true. Cumberbatch is great, with his best Hugh Laurie doctor accent, and the rest of the cast are just as cool. Of course, Rachel McAdams is severely underused - something we can hope will be rectified next Strange movie. C'mon, Marvel. You can do better than that.

On the whole, great stuff. I'd have liked more, though. It's just under two hours long, and when the final fight comes, you don't really expect it to be the "final fight".

Not the best of Marvel (my faves still are Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy) but still a great, great movie.

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