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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Dr. Strange Trailer & Set Photos

Edited by Robert Beach

My favorite thing about Marvel studios is even amid all the formula-driven plots and studio-mandated storytelling, there’s still a creative spark and vibrance for the material at the heart of these movies. Every time I’m feeling a little burnt out on the Marvel product something new pops up to drag me back in. When Thor: The Dark World and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exhausted me, Captain America: Winter Soldier brought me back to life. I liked Age of Ultron, but it was still a frustrating mess. Then Ant-Man and Jessica Jones washed all that away. 

A lot of that has to do with tone and style. Marvel’s simply at their best when they aren’t actively trying to make blockbuster hits, but are more trying to experiment with genre and visuals. And now we have Dr. Strange, Marvel’s latest “experimental risk” in a long line of experiments that proved to be not that risky. But is there a better film to be found in this first trailer, poster, and set photos or are we on track to another well-intended disappointment in the vein of Incredible Hulk

I’m honestly pretty mixed on this trailer. My favorite part is the genre aesthetic we’ve got going on here, which lands itself much more in the vein of urban fantasy rather than blockbuster superhero. It’s an interesting aesthetic blend between a more ‘90s “urban west meets mystic east” (a la The Shadow or The Crow) and the slick black gloss and earthy clay Asiatic aestheticism of a Christopher Nolan film. 

In fact, a good deal of the trailer feels directly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s signature aesthetic, specifically Batman Begins and Inception. The ending shot of the four-way New York City split can’t help but feel reminiscent of the strange reality shifts of Inception, and the visual design of the Ancient One’s sanctum in the far east are thoroughly reminiscent of the League of Shadows from Batman Begins. 

For those unfamiliar with the story, Stephen Strange was a brilliant surgeon before a car accident cost him the use of his hands.  Desperate for some cure, Strange travels to Tibet and trains under a wise, mystic monk known as the Ancient One. Together, Strange masters the mystic arts and eventually takes the Ancient One’s place as the Sorcerer Supreme, guardian of Earth from threats beyond this plane. Most of that seems to have made it into this iteration of the character’s origin, although another full-length origin movie is hardly a great way to introduce Dr. Strange as a fresh and novel concept. 

I understand that Dr. Strange’s origin probably isn’t common knowledge, but unless the training stuff at the Ancient One’s monastery is really cool in the vein of Ant-Man or Iron Man, it’s going to be a little disappointing. I mean, the big draw of this aesthetic is that unique blend of Eastern mysticism and urban modernism. It'd be a shame if the bulk of the film was Benedict Cumberbatch doing Tai-Chi poses in a temple somewhere. We know at the very least the big ending battle will be in New York thanks to the set photos, but Thor: The Dark World followed that same set-up of mystic main setting and urban finale. We all know how well that flick turned out. 

Speaking of, Cumberbatch seems…okay as Dr. Strange. It’s obviously a little too soon to make an actual call on his performance given he’s got 3 lines in the whole trailer. One thing does stand out. Cumberbatch seems to be doing an American accent as Dr. Strange. While that shouldn’t be surprising, it really is. I think it’s Cumberbatch’s public persona has always been so patently British and the idea of going to the mystic orient to gain their magics feels like a decidedly English story point. The American accent does make Cumberbatch sound a lot like Dr. House, which hardly seems coincidental given Strange is meant to be a cocky and self-assured surgeon prior to becoming a cocky and self-assured magician. 

Let’s talk supporting cast before moving on to the big stuff. We don’t see a lot of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo…ish. He’s apparently a blending of Baron Mordo and Brother Voodoo as he’s more of a hero and Strange’s ally rather than in the comics were Mordo was Strange’s rival and enemy. I like his costuming, but it’d be nice if he got a line or two in the next trailer and maybe didn’t shake out to just be “the hero’s black friend” like literally every other black movie character at Marvel. 

We don’t see much of Rachel McAdams either for that matter, which is weird given the rumblings I’ve heard are that she’s meant to be Night Nurse. I’m really not sure why she’s in the movie aside from maybe serving as a love interest for Dr. Strange. If that is the case, it’d be a pretty disappointing waste of a great actress. 

Meanwhile, Mads Mikkelsen is looking really damn cool as the bad guy. A lot of folks have speculated he’s the Dread Dormammu, but I’m honestly pretty skeptical on that. Nothing about his costume would imply Dormammu’s design, especially the whole “flaming head” thing would require extensive special effects that Mikkelsen isn’t equipped with in the set photos. It seems more likely to me that he’ll end up either a new character or Chthon. 

Chthon is an evil ancient god of chaos who tends to possess living wizards and is the archenemy of Gaia, Thor’s mom in the comic books. I already speculated that Cate Blanchett might be playing Gaia in Thor: Ragnarok, so if that’s the case, Chthon being in Dr. Strange would make a lot of sense. 

And then there’s Tilda Swinton, oh why Marvel?  Tilda Swinton’s character is the Ancient One, an Asian monk that trains Dr. Strange and one of the handful of premiere non-X-Men Asian characters.  Obviously, people are pretty up in arms about this blatant whitewashing, especially the other prominent non-X-Men Asian character is the Mandarin, and he already got uncomfortably whitewashed. 

With the Mandarin, that whitewashing could at least be forgiven for not wanting to dive into the stew of ugly stereotypes that make up a lot of the Mandarin’s history. There's really no reason for whitewashing the Ancient One. I’ve heard it rumored executives didn’t want to somehow offend Chinese audiences as the Ancient One is meant to be a super wise and powerful Tibetan character, but even that sounds sketchy. Really though, whitewashing the Ancient One is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes Dr. Strange’s problematic relationship with Asian culture in this trailer.

The visuals of the trailer are more or less draped in the visual architecture and design of the “mystic orient” trope, something that could’ve been overcome if there were a single prominent Asian character in the film. There isn’t. I mean, we don’t even get a cursory look at Dr. Strange’s friend/butler Wong, making it seem a lot like he’s just there as a throwaway role.  

All this coming on the heels of the big uproar over the Iron Fist casting isn’t doing Marvel Studios any favors, nor buying them any goodwill. The fact of the matter is Marvel has ingrained itself so much into the popular consciousness there’s no reason they couldn’t stand to “take the risk” of casting an Asian lead, or a female one for that matter. 

Back in phase 1, when they were proving their worth and things were uncertain sure, then they had to be careful and formula driven but now? Now they’ve produced several of the highest grossing films ever; they sit comfortably atop a mound of cultural capital that would rival Scrooge McDuck. They’re a branch of the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Disney corporation; they made a movie starring a space raccoon and another called “Ant-Man.” Marvel can afford to take the “risk” of diversity. 

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1 comment:

  1. Definitely going with Chthon, what you forgot to mention is that Scarlet Witch is his "spiritual" daughter and she is described by the Russo's as being far more powerful than what we have seen so far. Also don't forget The Other gave Loki the scepter. This all makes perfect set-up for Stephen meeting Wanda.