Martin Scorsese said in a recent interview that he doesn’t watch movies much anymore because he feels like there is a lot of oversaturation right now and that “words and images don’t mean anything anymore.” Well, if ever there was a film that could best serve as an example of what Scorsese meant, it’s Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Now, maybe this isn’t exactly what Scorsese meant, but while there are a lot of marvelous (no pun intended) visuals in the film (as you can see in the poster above), most of these images have very little impact – whether emotional or intellectual – and hence end up meaning very little. There are multiple reasons why, but the one root cause is actually the film’s biggest problem: Nothing is ever given proper time, which is ironic considering time plays a big part in the film’s ending, but never mind. The movie seems to treat every scene as perfunctory, it’s just scene after scene of setup and payoff and setup and payoff so we can quickly get to the end and move on to the next Marvel film. We get lots of quick exposition and Strange, as is typical for heroes like him, is super fast in learning everything and figures everything out and saves the day by the end (spoiler?). The problem is that the threats are never given proper weight, so the resolutions and potential future consequences carry no weight either.
What doesn’t help make matters any better is Scott Derrickson’s direction. Like I said, all these big CGI sequences are edited together so quickly that any impact they have is fleeting. Big images fly by you at the speed of light, and even when they are given some time (like, for example, the “darker dimension” or whatever at the end), you don’t actually know what you’re looking at (apart from some pretty colors and shapes) because it was never properly explained, so there’s no real reason to care. Scott Derrickson’s direction, however, as is typical for Marvel films, is pretty bland. He, strangely, films most of the action scenes in handheld medium shots, so clarity is always an issue. The car crash scene earlier in the film is completely visually incoherent – I had no idea what was going on – and the one slow-mo shot inside the car felt like something thrown in simply because it was “cool” and not because it really adds anything to the scene. However, even when Derrickson actually does do something that’s visually legible and interesting, like the scene where the Ancient One sends Strange’s “astral form” hurtling through the multiverse and back, and the camera here stays mostly with Strange without (m)any cuts, it only makes me wonder: What exactly is this sequence trying to achieve? Because to me, it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s attempting to approximate a cinematic experience so much as an amusement park ride (go see it in IMAX 3D!), and that to me is still a failure, just of a different kind.
The other big problem with Marvel movies (well, superhero movies in general) these days is that the threats are too big and with each movie they keep getting bigger. The villains are no longer mere human beings with superpowers like the heroes, no – now we must have some interdimensional being, some superpowered robot, something that threatens all of existence, and given that the heroes win in almost every movie, there’s just no reason left to watch these films anymore. It’s just a bunch of CGI characters fighting each other in a bunch of bloodless battles and saving the Earth from unimaginable threats. At the end of the day, it never feels like anything real, tangible, and/or human was at stake.
I did enjoy this film in parts, mind you. I thought it was funny, Benedict Cumberbatch was fine for what he was given to work with (which wasn’t much), and yes the technical quality of the visual effects is superb. However, there are still several more films in this franchise/”universe” to come – and I’m sure the technology will be more refined, the CGI will get better, the images will become bigger, there will be more characters, more threats, more “wars,” etc., but ultimately, with each new film, it will all mean little and less.