Heidi MacDonald: A 15 minute preview of The Doctor Strange movie, which opens November 4th, was shown around the globe tonight. I caught it down the street at my local. I can’t do those second by second breakdowns so I’ll just give my impressions.
The footage was sort of like an expanded trailer, but with lots more spectacle as the SFX get finished. We see the opening with Benedict Cumberbatch as narcissistic surgeon Stephen Strange and Rachel McAdams in her MCU debut as Christine Palmer, a fellow doctor who has a history with Strange. Strange’s indifference to others is established in about the most bluntly obvious way possible: acting like a total bastard while driving his sports car too fast around a hairpin turn on a cliff. Gee what could POSSIBLY BE ABOUT TO HAPPEN? A gruesome car crash, that’s what! Oh, snap….all the bones in your hands! Strange wakes up with his hands held together by dozens of pins, his career as a surgeon over.
When next we see him, he’s in wandering hobo mode — beard, bad haircut, anorak — in an unnamed mountain top city that serves as entrance to a mystical initiation, one administered by Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo. As seen in the trailer, Swinton delivers prim homilies about other worlds, mystic dimensions, power inside us, blah blah blah, all the stuff that anyone who’s ever seen a movie would know about except a narcissistic surgeon, I guess, so he’s skeptical. Bad move.
The Ancient One teaches Strange a lesson though by sending him off into a pretty sharp looking CGI sequence of the Astral Plane that owes a lot to Dali and Magrite, etc. and may just be one of the best looking CGI sequences in a Marvel movie yet.
That a pretty low bar, though, as Marvel/ Disney generally buy scripts, scores and action sequences in bulk at Stan’s Club. (Stan’s cameo was revealed in the preview, and drew a big cheer.) But SFX, especially made for IMAX, are really what is going to drive this film.
We get to see Strange in his master of the Mystic Arts guise, exchanging non-jokes with a very serious Wong (Benedict Wong) and meet Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecillius and the last four or five minutes of the trailer are mostly spectacular SFX set pieces that evoke Inception, surrealist art and, maybe, your nightmares.
A couple of things stand out to me:
- As I mentioned before, the SPX are the most imaginative yet seen in a Marvel movie (as they would HAVE to be, right?). It was great to see some memorable imagery and fantasy put into an action sequence. And it looked amazing in IMAX 3D. That is how you need to see this movie, and doubtless why they did all these previews.
- BUT the footage still has that cookie cutter pacing and script that is endemic to all the non Whedon/Gunn MCU films. The humor, in particular was really not very funny. The ‘Batch was perfect of course, Maybe too perfect, but perfect. Ejiofor and Mikkelson will do nothing to lose their Tumblr followings and Swinton is creepy and otherworldly as always.
- Don’t quote me on this, but the music was also a cut above Marvel standard with the great Michael Giacchino on board. Maybe this will be the first Marvel movie where you hum the tune as you walk out of the theater.
- The screen advertised a special Snapchat filter just for the screening! I tried to do it and my phone crashed and died! A woman kept crying out “What is the snapchat code!!!!!” but the guy running the screening had no answer. WE WANT DOC STRANGE SNAPS!
The last time I saw sneak MCU footage it was for Guardians of the Galaxy two years ago and that was truly special. They showed the complete escape from prison scene and the whole audience was desperate to see the rest of the movie right then and then.
Doctor Strange is nowhere near as fresh or funny and the story looks so predictable you could set your clock by it. But it was also satisfying, well crafted and just what we want to see as the winds of November blow. This will be another hit film for the MCU so make space for all the action figures, Lego and DVDs you’ll be collecting down the road.
Alex Lu: Tagging in, I’ll try to provide some additional commentary and add some additional shades of color to Heidi’s fresh and expedient commentary.
First off, because we at Stately Beat Manor are always highly coordinated, Heidi and I ended up at different screenings of the preview even though we both live in New York City. At my event, the night started off in an interesting fashion as two people walked by us while we were waiting in line to get to the escalator that would take us to the Imax theater. One of these theatergoers said to no one in particular that they “hope we enjoy our whitewashed trash.” It seems like Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One continues to haunt Doctor Strange and has put it on the backfoot with certain demographics. Even one of the people who was actually attending the screening seemed to be under the impression that Swinton would actually be donning Yellowface in the film (trust me, if that was the case, I’d be screaming about it until my throat was torn apart by the vibrational force). It will be interesting to see how Swinton’s role in the movie is perceived after audiences have the opportunity to view the whole film and critics have had time to dissect it.
Of course, the tone of the night didn’t stay particularly serious for long. A few minutes after we were seated, Sebastian Stan, who plays Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier, showed up in our theater to introduce the segment of Doctor Strange we were about to see. He said he wasn’t in it and then paused, saying he wasn’t actually sure if that was really the case because they wouldn’t tell him. He told a story about how he met Benedict Cumberbatch long before Cumberbatch went out for the role of Strange. They were sitting on a rooftop together when Cumberbatch turned to Stan and said “How strange, what it is we do.” It was a beautiful “circle” that closes with them both being a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016.
Stan closed by saying that he emailed Cumberbatch to congratulate him but never received a reply. Apparently, the only person who returns his emails these days is fellow Captain America actor Anthony Mackie. Stan received a wave of applause and uproarious laughter before exiting to the cry of one attendee proclaiming her love for him. But you don’t have to take my word for any of this because apparently the appearance is already on YouTube (what?!):
Moving into the screening itself, we open with Benedict Cumberbatch welcoming us to the screening before waving his arms and causing the boundaries of the projection screen to extend. It was a neat way to juxtapose the film’s regular dimensions with the added length and width of the Imax projection’s.
As Heidi mentioned a lot of the scenes they showed were extended versions of scenes they included in the film’s first trailer. We see the yellow-hooded figure from the trailer opening a portal in a city and Strange emerging with the Ancient One on a mountaintop as well as the is-this-my-mantra-no-it’s-the-wifi-password scene. However, the very first scene between Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer and Stephen Strange is new and immediately injects some tension into the proceedings. The two characters allude to a past romantic fling as well as some professional tension. Strange is a fame-monger who only takes on cases and research projects that personally interest him and are, in some way, groundbreaking. He dismisses Palmer’s role as an ER surgeon as someone who saves one life at a time while he saves thousands. For romantic leads in a modern Hollywood movie, McAdams and Cumberbatch are refreshingly close in age (37 and 40, respectively) and have some decent chemistry together.
However, on the whole, I still find the acting and dialogue I’ve seen out of this film to be quite hamfisted. Heidi covered all the tropes the filmmakers have decided to use to depict Strange’s origin from his arrogant playboy attitude to his character arc as a skeptic scientist who gets introduced to “real” magic. While the writing in Marvel movies is rarely ever as clever as it is witty, Doctor Strange is particularly on the nose about everything and is unfortunately not bouncy and jubilant enough to coast on its sense of humor. Before he gets introduced to the world of magic, Cumberbatch plays Strange as someone who is as flippant as Tony Stark without the delicate wounded center that ultimately made Stark sympathetic. Then, after Cumberbatch meets the Ancient One he’s wide-eyed and shocked about basically everything he sees. Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius as someone with a thirteen-year old’s sense of edginess. His cult’s goal is “not to save the world, but to end it.” Obviously I’m being a bit harsh on this stuff and it’s impossible to totally judge the acting quality based upon these short segments of performances, but if we all agree to accept the premise that these teaser reels are supposed to show off the film at its best, then I think we can safely say that it is not going to shine in the performance or scripting departments.
Ultimately though, we’re all here for the visuals. I love watching magic on screen. Films about magicians, whether they’re like the ones from Harry Potter or the ones from The Prestige, always lend themselves to visual innovation and play. I am overjoyed to report that Doctor Strange looks like it aims please on that front. First, we see Swinton send Strange reeling through dimensions beyond our own. We saw some of this footage at San Diego Comic Con this past summer, but it was interesting to note that the filmmakers have decided to go with different cuts of certain moments such as the one where Strange gets sucked into a vortex after touching a butterfly floating in space. He zips past dimensions full of crystals and spaces brimming with gangrenous-appearing tentacles. In a moment that seems ripped straight out of an Escher painting, Steven is seen floating in a plane full of hands. The Ancient One’s voice booms in the background as she asks Strange to open his mind to the infinite possibilities of the multiverse. Steven looks down at his hands in horror as new hands start sprouting from his fingertips. More hands sprout from those new hands and suddenly his arms have become a forest of appendages as the larger hands floating around him start creeping up towards his body. They grab him and more hands start appearing all over Steven’s body. We see that some of these hands are damaged like Steven’s were by the accident. Suddenly, Steve is pulled into the hands as the camera pushes out to reveal that the gap were Steven once was is actually the iris of an eye. We push out further to find Steven back to normal but dwarfed by a giant version of his head that is staring out into the distance. It’s absolutely insane and singlehandedly made my night.
Of course, things don’t end there. We see several scenes with Kaecilius including a notable one where he pushes Steven over a balcony in what seems to be the Sanctum Santorum. However, instead of hitting the ground with a thud, Steven rises up into the air and conjures a golden sural. It’s a cool moment that’s only trumped by the scene, shown in Doctor Strange‘s first trailer, where Kaecilius and his cronies are chasing Strange and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo through a series of alternate-universe New York Cities stylized as cubic skylines rotating beside one another. Steven and Karl keep trying to escape Kaecilius by opening portals, but Kaecilius keeps disrupting the nature of the world to stop them. At one point, he rotates the center of gravity so the ground is suddenly 90 degrees in the sky. Steven and Karl fall onto the side of a building which is now the ground and start running along it. Steven tries to conjure another portal but Kaecilius stomps on the building, causing windows to destabilize and ripple upwards like a wave gathering steam until it reaches the fleeing pair of wizards and causes and entire set of buildings to collapse inward towards them.
Notably, there were a couple of great easter eggs included in the teaser. In the first scene, before Steven’s car careens over the side of a cliff and ends his career as a surgeon, his assistant says there’s a man with an experimental suit of armor that could use his help. Of course, Steven turns Iron Man away. Then, during the chase scene spanning multiple New Yorks, Steven and Karl fall onto the side of a bus. Inside, we see an ever-jubilant Stan Lee!
In a final analysis, what we saw tonight was a hugely impressive set of scenes that demonstrate the amount of creativity and VFX work that has gone into the creation of Steven’s world. I’m not sure that they will ultimately make up for the weaknesses Heidi and I already see in the script, but they’ll certainly help inspire awe, if not love, from viewers.