Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review: Marvel Studios has continued to impress with its output year after year. Although sometimes I wonder if its influence is becoming too great, now with other studios like Warner Bros doubling down on this dangerous idea to not just make franchises, but an entire world connecting franchises, where two or three movies are made every year that all work as an ever-expanding whole. Marvel hasn’t had a home-run each time out — Ant-Man and The Avengers: Age of Ultron disappointed more than they impressed — but Civil War was one of the studios’ best films, action-packed and entertaining but also pushing the complexity of some of these beloved characters to a deeper level.
Their second film of 2016 was something entirely new, and also a total blast. Doctor Strange, a property I had never heard of before the project was announced, is yet another origin story, but it feels almost completely removed from the Marvel universe, like a rival studio throwing a hand into the comic book ring. It’s exciting, it’s funny, but it also takes the viewer to undiscovered places that exist beyond our reality, and even beyond the strange lands of the Thor films.
The filmmakers behind the Marvel films have definitely found confident ways to hook viewers over the years, and something director Scott Derrickson does well in Doctor Strange is make it accessible to all audiences, not just those familiar with the character. Every beat of the story in the opening thirty minutes is clear, from the protagonist’s motivations, to the unusual “other” world he encounters. I liked that Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly cast, is a bit of a dick early on, not exactly the most likable guy in the Marvel canon.
The movie slows down once Strange starts training, but the sequence is alleviated somewhat by unexpected humor, a necessary device which works beautifully throughout the film. The tone of the film is often dead serious, and it deals with so many bizarre and occasionally silly ideas that a sense of humor was essential to make the material work. Without the funny moments, the audience would eventually have to laugh at the movie, not with it, and Derrickson knows that. Just when the events start to get too serious, he’ll put in a gag, or just a clever look from Cumberbatch, and it makes a world of difference.
The film features another new outstanding Marvel cast, starting, of course, with Cumberbatch. It was reported early on that Joaquin Phoenix was being eyed for the lead character, and I seriously can’t even imagine that. I love Phoenix, but could he have pulled off the goofy moments this character requires? Cumberbatch feels tailor-made for the role in every way. The other great performance comes from the always reliable Tilda Swinton, who is both inspiring and creepy in the role of the bald-headed Ancient One. She always loses herself in her roles, and this is one that could have devolved into self-parody. I’m happy to report that it never does.
In the end Doctor Strange is second-tier Marvel. It’s not at the level of its very best, like Captain America: Winter Soldier and the first Avengers, but it’s definitely on the next level, introducing us to a character I for one look forward to seeing again in the future. When the project was first announced, I didn’t really know what to think, but overall Doctor Strange impressed me on many levels.
Watching Like a Writer: Doctor Strange made me think about infusing humor in more serious work. This film rests far more on the dramatic side than a comedic one, with major thematic issues at its core, but the film ultimately works because just when it’s getting too bizarre for its own good, there will be a gag to make the audience laugh. This got me to thinking about the difficulties of balancing drama and comedy in a piece of fiction. What happens when you go too far in either direction? How do you find the right balance?
Exercise! Look at something serious you’ve written and think about how could you incorporate humor. Is it at all possible? Why or why not?