Posts Tagged ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’

Just when I thought the MCU might be getting somewhere —

About the only person more surprised by just how fucking much I loved Black Panther than a regular reader of this site was — well, me, but love it to pieces I did, and it’s an opinion I still stand behind 100% and then some. I’m not sure how much of the credit for its artistic success is down to the studio “suits” simply allowing Ryan Coogler to do something different, to break the mold, and how much was him actively wanting to while other directors remain content to serve up more of the same, but whatever the case may be, it was the first Marvel Studios flick that had a distinct look, feel, and personality all its own. It stood out, then, not just for its frankly profound cultural significance, but for its ambition and its quality. It wasn’t a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Superhero TV,” it was something altogether more. Altogether different. Altogether better.

Say it with me in unison : ” but you knew it wouldn’t last.”

And maybe it couldn’t last. The strictures placed on an “event” film such as Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers : Infinity War are, after all, stifling at best, suffocating at worst. I mean, this is “The Big One,” right? The one they’ve all  been leading up to, and consequently (almost) all hands are on deck : Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, Chris Henworth’s Thor, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Robert Downey Jr. — sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (I get them mixed up because they’re the exact same goddamn character just with different powers), Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis — they’re all present and accounted for, as are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in their voice-over roles as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively.

Even most of the “big-time” supporting cast members from prior films/franchises are here, albeit for pretty cursory “check-ins” : Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddlesont’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, William Hurt’s Secretary of State Ross, Benedict Wong’s — uhhhmmm — Wong, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Danai Gurira’s Okoye — hell, even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts in an appearance if you hang around through the end of the credits. If you like ’em, chances are they’ll turn up just long enough to make you happy.

Which means, of course, that there’s little room for anybody new — the “Big Bad,” Thanos, has made some brief-ish some cameos in some of the lead-ups to this, but by and large this is the first time we’ve seen him take center stage (and Josh Brolin actually does some interesting things with the character, portraying him as more dispassionate and calculating than outright menacing), so I guess we can call him kinda “new,” but the only semi-major player we absolutely have never seen before is Peter Dinklage in the role of Eiti, and ya know? He’s pretty damn good. But then, he always is.

So the story goes something like this : Thanos is out to assemble the six all-powerful “Infinity Gems” so he can place them all inside this big, fancy gauntlet and wipe out half the living beings in the entire universe, thereby insuring that the half who survive can have it good what with less competition for resources and the like. But not so fat, the re-grouped Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Wakandans, and the heroes who usually go it alone are all going to join forces to try and stop him, because that’s what they do. Big fights ensue. Big moments occur. Big conversations are had. And it all leads up to a big third act that changes everything forever. Really. The whole course of the MCU is altered. It’s momentous. It’s gargantuan. It’s the most hitherto-unimaginable thing to ever go down.

Unless, ya know, you’ve ever read a comic book at any point in your entire life. In which case you’ll know that nothing really happens that can’t, well, un-happen.

The reason Avengers : Infinity War might be said, in purely technical terms, to “work” — and why so many people are leaving theaters all over the world in a state of absolute shock — comes down not to anything in the film itself, but to a clever advance marketing ploy, and that’s it. Ya see, early on it was announced that this was the first of a two-part story. Then Marvel seemed to backtrack on that and say, no, it’s not, we’ve re-worked this a little bit and now it’s a stand-alone film. And if you go into the flick believing that, then yeah, this is the gut-punch to end all gut-punches. But it’s all bullshit.

Seriously. This is no more a “one-off” than any of these things are. The status quo has been re-set in a very big way, no doubt, but who are we kidding? It’s only temporary. There’s one major-ish development involving the demise of a character (and that’s all I’m gonna say) that occurs before the balls-out climactic finale, and in theory I suppose that could stick, but everything else? Like Stan Lee infamously once said, “how much do you charge for a quick hand —” sorry, “don’t give them change, give them the illusion of change.” And that, friends, is precisely what this is. An illusion. A big, bold, brash, jaw-dropping illusion, to be sure —but at the end of the day, an illusion nonetheless.

For my part, what can I say? This hustle stopped working on me when I was about 12 years old. I need something more. And that’s simply not on offer here. This is a film that exists for the sole purpose of hoodwinking you into thinking that nothing will ever be the same again — and when you turn around in, I dunno, two years’ time, guess what? It’s gonna be like it never even happened.  So enjoy the re-arranged interiors while you can, because everything, minor window dressings aside, is gonna end up right back where it’s always been — and always will be.

This is what audiences want, though, and while that’s perfectly fine and dandy on the most obvious and liminal level — different strokes for different folks and what have you — when you spend any time thinking about it, actually it’s kind of depressing. Like Trump, Avengers : Infinity War (and, really, the entire MCU in general) is one big con job, and it’s a con job that’s winning. Once the initial shock of this film’s ending wears off, there won’t be a soul left wondering “oh my God, what did they just do?,” but there will be legions of people wondering”oh my God, how are they going to reverse all of that?” And I really don’t care what the answer to that question is.

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I’ll say this much — Marvel Studios’ latest mega-blockbuster, Doctor Strange, certainly is an amazing feast for the eyes. From the amazing opening fight sequence to the trippy other-dimensional mystical mindscapes peppered throughout the film, director Scott Derrickson (who also co-wrote the script along with John Spaihts and the erudite-sounding C. Robert Cargill) pulls out all the stops to “wow” you and succeeds in his goal admirably. In fact, if there’s ever been a flick that you need to see in 3-DD, Imax, and all that shit, it’s this one.

Here’s the rub, though : if you’ve seen all, some, or even just one of Marvel’s other cinematic products, then you really don’t “need” to see this thing at all.

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By all rights, of course, this movie (which only came out two weeks ago, but I’m slapping my “Late To The Party” header on it anyway since most people see these on opening weekend and I didn’t get a chance to catch it until last night) sounded like it might represent the best chance for the so-called MCU to break from its well-established (and, admittedly, quite financially successful) mold : the character of Stephen Strange himself, a semi-tragic figure brought low by his own hubris when the wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon’s reckless driving leads to a car accident that renders his hands useless and sets him off on a quest to heal himself by mystical means, is arguably the purest distillation of the type of “morality play” his creator, Steve Ditko (sorry, Stan, I don’t care what the studio bosses say, you don’t get any credit for this one from me) excelled at during his 1960s Marvel period, and his signature psychedelic visual style is well-represented in the work of Derrickson’s CGI crew, but there’s definitely quite a bit lost in the translation from newsprint to celluloid here. I’ll grant you that this film isn’t nearly the glorified paean to war and militarism that the Avengers and Captain America flicks are, but in just about every other respect it follows the worn and tired formula of its stablemates downright slavishly : morally and ethically dubious protagonist (in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange) goes through a long-form origin story that results in him becoming a marginally better person after attaining super-powers at the feet of a more experienced master (Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One);  he accrues a comic-relief sidekick (Benedict Wong’s — well, Wong), as well as one who might be a potential future rival (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo), along the way; principal bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius) is a former pupil of aforementioned master gone rogue; main bad guy (Dormammu) is a computer-generated special effect; nominal love interest (Amy McAdams’ Christine Palmer) is essentially treated like a doormat but sticks by her guy anyway; you know the drill. In fact, you know it by heart at this point.

All of which means that a darn fine cast is wasted on this lifeless, assembly-line drivel (hell, you can even set your watch by the intervals between jokes — which largely fall flat this time out — in these things). Cumberbatch essentially plays Strange as Tony Stark in a magic red cloak;  Ejiofor buries his not-inconsiderable talents under a mask of dour, one-dimensional earnestness; McAdams suffers through her lines as surely as her character suffers through life as a plot device for her male counterpart; Swinton (whose casting was controversial among stodgy and conservative comics fans due to the fact that the “real” Ancient One is both Asian and male) shows some heart but the damn thing is that her role would be better served if she were more distant and blase a la David Carridine; Mikkelsen seems like a low-rent stand-in for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki; yadda, yadda, etc., etc.

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In many ways, in fact, the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios has never been made more plain than it is here — after all, if they can take a fundamentally different premise than that which we see in their other films and still turn it into big-budget, dime-a-dozen, interchangeable cinematic fare, then it becomes depressingly clear that not only are they not interested in trying anything fundamentally different, they more than likely simply don’t even know how to at this point.

Not that audiences seem to care, mind you. “More of the same” still sells, and unless and until one of these things tanks at the box office, nothing’s gonna change, and the “Big-Budget-TV-Movie” ethos that permeates the MCU will hold firm. When it comes to the bottom line, that makes plenty of sense — but sooner or later familiarity breeds contempt, and when the bottom finally falls out on the super-hero craze, I predict it’s gonna fall out hard. As in, end-of-disco hard. People aren’t just gonna stop seeing this stuff, they’re gonna be too embarrassed to admit they ever even liked it. And when that day comes, whether it’s in one year or ten, Marvel will have only themselves to blame. They crank out enough films to be able to do something at least a little bit adventurous and “outside the box” once in awhile. They can afford to throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. But they don’t. Won’t. Can’t. And now it’s gotten to the point where I’m a whole lot less lonely than I used to be when it comes to griping about the utter sameness of their films. The chorus of groaners is still small, true, but it’s getting louder. And larger. And sooner or later, the powers that be might want to pay attention.

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They’d better start paying attention to the wretched politics of their films, as well. Women are props consigned to do little beyond making the men around them more caring and more human. Racial and ethnic minorities are consigned to “second-fiddle” roles. Gays and lesbians simply don’t exist. Might always makes right. And, perhaps most troublesome in the “Age Of Trump,” rich people — even the most noxious, self-centered, asinine, egomaniacal ones — are worthy of being granted super-powers and become better people once they attain those powers. Why they’re not called to the carpet more often for these clear, present, and nauseating themes remains a mystery to me, but whenever I bitch about ’em, the most common whitewashing excuse I hear from folks — even he most purportedly “liberal” viewers — is that I’m “overthinking” things. Well, I call bullshit on that. Tony Stark — and now Stephen Strange — have gone a long way toward normalizing this idea that overtly asshole-ish, obscenely wealthy narcissists can be heroes, and look where that’s gotten us.

Am I blaming Marvel, then, for the rise of our Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief? No (although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter was a major Trump donor and supporter), but in much the same way that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (whose author, William Peter Blatty, was a psychological warfare operative in Vietnam) preceded the ludicrous “Satanic Panic” that followed in their wake about a decade later, and the spate of ‘Nam flicks in the 1980s that were, at least on a surface level, critical of that war helped numb audiences to the notion of endless, un-winnable conflicts that would start up again in earnest with “Gulf War I” in 1990 and continue, on and off, for the next three decades, these flicks do their part to contribute to the cultural zeitgeist that makes certain once-unpalatable notions in the real world very palatable indeed.  In that respect, then, Marvel movies may be graduating from being simply dull and predictable to being downright dangerous. I hope, of course, that this is just pure batshit paranoia on my part — I fear, however, that it’s anything but.