Tuesday’s Review – Doctor Strange (2016)

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, comic book, comic books, fucking beautiful, fucking weird, magic, Marvel, Rachel McAdams, review, super powers, superhero, Tilda Swinton

I used to be one of those Marvel fangirls who would go and see a new release as soon as it was out. Now I tend to take my sweet time because there doesn’t seem to be any need to rush. I’m guarateend to love the film regardless but it’s becoming more like doing a Where’s Wally instead of watching a film. There can be no denying that Marvels films have become more than a little predictable of late. An underwritten big bad threatens the world and the good guy/guys have to save the day, probably involving something huge crashing to the ground. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a system that has worked for them and gives the audience everything they want from a superhero film. However, with the arrival of Phase 3 this year it was definitely the time to see something different. That started subtly with Civil War where we saw the good guys facing off against each other for a huge showdown. It wasn’t everything we hoped it would be but you can see that it’s starting to break the mould. The problem is that the formula is safe and adaptable enough for different themes, heroes, and genres. Marvel don’t want to risk losing fans when they know what works.

Which is why Doctor Strange always seemed like a massive risk. Of course, there are always anomalies and Marvel are always keen to take on a project that breaks the pattern. In 2015 Ant-Man took us away from the big time heroes like the Avengers and gave us a smaller tale that became more like a crime caper. Problems behind the scenes meant this was full of issues but it showed that there was room for different think. Like Ant Man, the story of Stephen Strange wasn’t one of the most widely known outside of comic book circles and wasn’t necessarily going to fit into the existing MCU. I mean, the minute you introduce magic into the world of superheroes then everything changes. Power is no longer measurable on a normal scale: this isn’t just about size and physical strength. Magic widens the limits of the possibility and means the rule book just got blown up. It could very easily have fucked up everything Marvel films has been doing over the last 10 years.

So Doctor Strange had a huge job to do: it needed to introduce us to its newest hero and explain the world of magic. It’s a big task that fills the 2 hour running time. Although, the first act is rather slow to get us anywhere. We first meet the egotistical but brilliant brain surgeon, Stephen Strange, who gets into a car accident that destroys his career. He’s helpless and desperate to get back to what he once was. If I’m honest, the first 30 minutes of this film was basically just an episode of House with Benedict Cumberbatch taking Hugh Laurie’s place as British actor playing a doctor who’s also a huge dick. I get that we needed to see why Strange was so desperate to get the use of his hands back but it all felt a bit too much like a parody.

When all hope looks lost, Stephen is directed to Nepal and a mysterious group of people who helped supposedly heal a man who couldn’t walk. Stephen meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who allows him to see the hidden dimensions that have remained hidden and sets him on a journey to learn to use magic for himself. As he learns, Strange learns that, as well as all the wonders he never knew about, there is untold danger within these different dimensions that constantly threaten humanity. It is up to Ancient One and her sorcerers to keep darkness away from the Earth. Darkness that is being summoned by her ex-student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), to destroy humanity. Its up to Stephen, his mentor, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), to stop him.

There is a lot to take in when you watch Doctor Strange and the typical format of a Marvel film isn’t really the best place to try something so new. I mean Thor had to introduce much less than this and it had a hard time teaching the audience about Norse mythology whilst also leaving enough time for fighting. Doctor Strange only just manages to keep a handle on everything it’s trying to do and manages to introduce magic to the MCU in a really trippy and awesome way. When Stephen first meets the Ancient One, she sends him on a journey through dimensions that will definitely give a few hippies some 60s flashbacks. It’s a visual feast and is an incredible film to watch. The many out-of-body experiences and crazy architectural remodelling bring a new freshness to the usual superhero film. This manages to feel like every other Marvel film but, in so many ways, is something completely new.

Although, that isn’t to say it comes without its problems. Benedict Cumberbatch is remarkable in the title role as is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. Both are reliable actors who enjoy playing the outcasts of society and so they are well suited to the roles. The rest of the cast are more forgettable. Rachel McAdams is given especially short shrift as fellow doctor and love interest, Christine Palmer. Chiwetel Ejiofor, whilst setting up his role for the next instalment, makes a limited impression and the always delightful Mads Mikkelsen finds himself in the role of another underdeveloped Marvel villain. The main two aside, it is only Benedict Wong who makes any kind of lasting impression and that has little to do with the script.

Doctor Strange is a good film; it’s a very good film. I was super excited to see it and I was incredibly happy afterwards. However, it would be wrong to say that this is the turning point for Marvel. It is a fresh and new film in the midst of every other punch ’em up superhero film but, really, it’s still the same old Marvel underneath. Every time it looks as if a storyline is being allowed a modicum of freedom then its pulled back in. Despite the new ideas at play, this is the same structure as every other Marvel origin story and has the same flaws we are sick of seeing. It shows great potential for the future but Marvel really need to start giving their writers and directors more freedom. It was so close to perfection.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, emotional wreck, Michael Fassbender, review, slavery, violence

We will constantly be told that 12 Years a Slave is groundbreaking and necessary filmmaking and it is true. A year after Quentin Tarantino placed the slave trade under his unique spotlight, Steve McQueen takes a more sombre look at that bleak part of American history. Comparisons can and will be made to Tarantino’s revenge Western but, aside from the theme that unites them, there is little to be drawn from such an association. Tarantino locks his slaves inside a cartoonish world where the damaged Django is able to gain some sort of catharsis through his violence. Steve McQueen makes this film knowing that there can be no easy answers. Whilst you could easily walk away from Django Unchained feeling that some form of justice has been served, there is nothing to shield you from the horrible truth in McQueen’s third film. Rather than revenge, we are being served up the unpalatable truth. 


12 Years is the adaptation of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man who lives with his wife and children in New York. Thanks to his unquestionably trusting nature, Solomon is tricked, drugged and kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery. We follow Solomon’s journey from the capital to the plantations of Louisiana where he is passed from the hands of a money-hungry trader (a despicable Paul Giamatti) to the benevolent but weak Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and, finally, the malicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon is stripped of his freedom, dignity and his name, having been giving the moniker Platt. He must hide his past, keep his head down and do everything that his masters expect of him.

Solomon is played by the hugely talented Chiwetel Ejiofor. There is a stark and uncomfortable contrast between the Solomon we see in the opening scenes and the man we see bound and helpless. The free man walks confidently around his home town and happily interacts with his neighbours. Then we suddenly see him chained up in a dark and dank cell before he is violently beaten by his captors.  It is a horrifying change.The violence and language of McQueen’s epic are intended to make its audience uncomfortable but it is presented in such a way that it affects on a deeper level. You are not seeing images that are simply shocking and disgusting but something that is barbaric and illogical. McQueen doesn’t have to do a lot here and just lets the narrative speak for itself. Through McQueen’s lens, slavery is seen in uncompromising brutality.
12 Years treats us to the typical McQueen style of precise framing and shots held onto just long enough to make you uncomfortable: the unflinching gaze. It is on Ford’s plantation that Solomon is given some respect but the caring owner does not control his staff quite as well as he should. The diabolical overseer (Paul Dano) takes a disliking to Platt and goads the slave into standing up for himself. In response, Solomon is hung from a tree with his feet barely touching the ground and gasping for breath. His fellow slaves go about their business behind him but the audience is held face-to-face with the violence for much longer than they’d like.
Then we have the harrowing scene towards the end of the film where the downtrodden Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), already having been subjected to Epps’ uncontrolled lust and sexual assault, is savagely beaten. As Solomon is forced to dole out this punishment, the camera circles the scene showing the horrifying effect this has on both Patsy and Solomon.
McQueen focuses a great deal on Solomon’s face, which places an enormous amount of pressure on
Ejiofor. His face, and most importantly his eyes, becomes the emotional centre of the film: carefully conveying every necessary emotion. You never see Northup admitting defeat and, through every awful encounter, Ejiofor lets a hint of determination shine through. This is acting of the greatest quality and Ejiofor deserves every award and nomination he’s been given.
Alongside him are equally Oscar-worthy performances that ensure the drama on screen never feels melodramatic or mawkish. Nyong’o, in her film debut, is spectacular but harrowing and plays Patsey with a fiery tenacity. It is a breathtaking start to her career and I am still outraged that she missed out on the BAFTA she so obviously deserved.
Though the most memorable performance, by far, comes from Michael Fassbender as the savage Epps. Epps starts off as potentially cartoony: a drunk and sadistic man who delights in breaking his slaves and terrorising them with fake bible verses. However, he is given extra depth through his obsession with Patsey and his strained relationship with his wife. He is an utterly terrifying presence who, despite being only a second away from violence, is far more dangerous. Fassbender provides us with a disturbing and awful portrayal of a slave owner who has become just an inhuman as the people he owns.
12 Years is a film that unpicks the intricacies of American slavery – the power-relationships, the daily horrors and the overlooked practices – and shows it to be nothing more than madness. This is an angry, intense and stylish examination of the slave trade that is meant to challenge the audience (I for one was an emotional wreck by the time the credits rolled) and one that will stay with you long after it ends.

McQueen doesn’t hide the realities that were faced by many behind witty word-play, suggestions of great change, or violent revenge narratives. He offers a painful, emotional and unrelenting view of what thousands of people faced less than 200 years ago. There is no happy ending here: just the haunting image of a broken man. Forcing you to face up to the corporeal realities of slavery, 12 Yearsis set to become a modern classic that goes to show just how powerful cinema can be.