Guys, it’s funny. Did you think it was going to be funny? Did you think Benedict Cumberbatch could even be funny? Neither did I! Considering that he is being funny while A) faking an American accent and B) wearing an outfit that Nosferatu would find tacky, the list of things Benedict Cumberbatch cannot do is now narrowed down to:
- Interact meaningfully with a voice recognition system that asks your name. “Cumberbatch!”
“CUM BER BATCH!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that…”
- Play Khan.
(Sorry. I’m still not over it.) But “Doctor Strange” reveals a new and delightfully goofy layer to our favorite thespian onion, allowing Cumberbatch to boogie and wobble and (memorably) fight a particularly stubborn piece of clothing. His note-perfect imitation of an American surgeon includes all the tics those who must deal with surgeons will recognize—the fighter-pilot arrogance, the abysmal bedside manner, the statistics-keeping—but never strays too far into pompous windbag territory. Cumberbatch locates an appealing smartass streak and follows it through a familiar arc: the arrogant scientist brought low by an inexplicable spiritual experience. “Doctor Strange” is mining some extraordinarily impoverished narrative territory, and those who pointed out its usage of offensive tropes are correct: it’s tiresome to watch yet another white man travel to the “exotic Orient”, study at the feet of a mystic master, then leap to the head of the class of “other” students to become The Best Savior Ever. The choice of Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One was baffling, drawing even more pointed (and warranted) criticism for whitewashing. “Doctor Strange”, as both a story and a movie, is flawed along racial lines: the story wasn’t written in a vacuum, the movie wasn’t made in a vacuum, and as my friend Billy Ockelmann Lee-Wagner astutely pointed out, a storyline based on “an arrogant white male proves things to his minority and female friends” is propping up some dangerous bullshit. But for all its deep internal flaws, the movie is neither soulless nor mean-spirited: its climax hinges upon a deeply selfless realization, one that’s all the more powerful for not being based in magic, but rather in logic and humanity. That’s the true strength of the “Marvel way” of storytelling—these are superhero stories, but they work first and foremost as stories about people, and their emotional beats hinge upon human realizations, faults, and triumphs. (I don’t know what DC movies are supposed to be about, but “people” aren’t it.) “Doctor Strange” uses CGI as liberally as any summer blockbuster, but it grasps that we can only be moved so much by pretty jets of light and kaleidoscopic arrays of color: while Strange deals in the magical manipulation of matter and time, the movie carefully defines the limitations and effects of the few spells he casts, never descending into the soulless red-light-versus-green-light battles that weakened “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and sunk the Harry Potter franchise. And in the “death of the mentor” scene, an obligatory Station Of The Cross for every superhero story, CGI is hardly used at all—instead, the movie simply hands the scene off to Tilda Swinton and lets her talk about snow. Not a dry eye in the house.
So sure: get Benedict Cumberbatch for your comedy role. Cast Tilda Swinton as an ancient Asian dude. We are now through the looking glass in every way possible, and with two more months to go in this worst of all years, I’ll take my laughs where I can get them.
Has anyone checked the roof at DC/Warner Brothers today? Is there a line? Have there been any large purchase orders for rope and rat poison? Because guys, I think someone oughta go check on them. This was a bad beatdown. Marvel, already playing chess to DC movies’ checkers, went full Deep Blue and revealed a gambit years in the making: show the boring parts in the trailer. Marvel can get away with this—clips of fights in deserted parking lots—because their cinematic universe is now such a self-sustaining juggernaut that it barely requires publicity. The brand alone sells the movie, and this is completely correct and just, because even the worst Marvel movies are still entertaining as hell. This is one of the best.
It nearly defies summation, because at this point we’re dealing with a medieval tapestry’s worth of characters and history and alliances and connection points, but Marvel never hangs the full weight of a movie on background knowledge: there is always a clear and immediate character-based conflict, simple and relatable stakes, an access point for those who haven’t been keeping box score since Iron Man 1 dropped in 2008. Here’s an elegant, gut-wrenching flashback to Tony Stark’s relationship with his father; it’s doing stealthy work on behalf of the third act, but you’d never notice because some wizard with a control panel has dialed Robert Downey, Jr. back to age twenty, and you’ll be busy wondering how he looks more like himself than he did in “Weird Science”, when he was actually twenty. Here’s a fight that almost gets started before lurching to a halt: Iron Man and Captain America size each other up, admit the other might have a point, then set off together in search of the puppetmaster pulling their strings. They’re both behaving so intelligently that when they actually do come to blows, it genuinely hurts—we’ve seen them do their best to stay friends. Compare this to DC’s pointless and irrational Batman v Superman fight (comparisons are inevitable; we just saw BvS a month ago, and the trauma’s still fresh), where Batman and Superman were both portrayed as beefy, manipulable dimwits—because to write them otherwise would have made their misunderstanding-based conflict a non-starter, and their tissue-thin reason for reconciliation (“Martha!!”) even more laughable. Marvel doesn’t have to play this game, because they’ve invested time and effort in creating deeply nuanced, historied characters whose behavior we can reliably predict: they can have an argument all on their own.
Which makes it weird to notice that a lot of Civil War hinges on some of the same beats that BvS did: an important political gathering gone horribly awry. The death of a mother. The machinations of a behind-the-scenes baddie who wants to sow conflict. But where every single one of these beats fell flat in BvS, here they form a neat, syncopated rhythym, the freight-train heartbeat of a story moving forward. It’s the difference between a three-year-old smacking a xylophone, and Charlie Watts. It’s the difference between a tunnel that Roadrunner dashes through, and a painted illusion on a cliff that Wile E. Coyote rams his face into. DC can try and try, just like the coyote can try and try, but they’re playing a fundamentally different game than Marvel is. The losing kind.
I have this test for if I’m gonna buy a dress. If I put it on, look in the fitting room mirror, and start grinning and dancing at the same time, that’s a roger on the dress. If I frown, suck in my stomach and start trying different poses, the dress is not getting bought. Simple as that.
I have a similar test for movies. It’s called the “bound-ahead” test. If, on the way out of the theater, I turn sideways and gallop two or three steps ahead of my friends, then turn around and begin talking and gesticulating excitedly while walking backwards, thus endangering myself, other patrons, and the stray potted plant, the movie was a good one. Simple as that.
“Age of Ultron” passed the bound-ahead test with flying colors, and was therefore a good movie. Everything else I have to say is predicated on that foundation. AoU was a good movie. In fact, I adored it.
I’ve never had so much beef with a movie I adored.
This movie managed to insult me as a woman, botch the characterization of some of my favorite fictional people on earth, and suspend disbelief by its underwear from the top of the school flagpole. It overloaded the cast; it tried to lay too much groundwork; it whiffed the ending. If this movie was a person, I would be making out with it on a pool table within ten minutes of meeting it, but I wouldn’t ever let it find out where I lived, because this movie is the kind of bad news whose texts could make you walk into a wall, but whose calls always come collect from county lockup. Somebody, tell me why I love this hot mess of a movie so damn much. Because seriously, it’s got problems. Here are some:
Problem #s 1-1,000,000. Clint Barton’s Secret Family. I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of people over the last three days about the many faces of Hawkeye, (criminal, avatar for ordinary humans, knockoff character, landlord, circus freak, reality TV show addict, super-spy, brainwashed clean slate, mentor of troubled youth, gay for Coulson, straight for Natasha, the knee bone connects to the ankle bone) and there’s a lot of room for individual interpretation, depending on what source well you’re drinking from. But the one consistent character trait across all sources (early comics canon, late comics canon, MCU canon, or fanon) is that Clinton Francis “Aw, Coffee, No” Barton is A) immensely talented at exactly one thing and B) a walking human disaster zone in every other area of his life, especially the “romantic relationships” area. This is a man whose previous girlfriends have basically bonded together in a little We Survived Dating Clint Barton And You Can Too, But Honey, You Really Shouldn’t club. This is a man whose best relationships are with his DVR and his dog. And that’s awesome, that’s relatable, that makes him work as a hero. Watching him magically become an ur-American dad in a functional marriage is deeply destabilizing to his character. Beyond that, it doesn’t work. Why would Clint keep his family hidden from everyone in SHIELD except Nick Fury if he was unaware of HYDRA’s infiltration? Why would Natasha make no mention of his family in Avengers 1? And why is he living in an aspirational, idyllic, America-that-never-was house with a tractor and a flag? In short, why is Clint Barton living in Steve Rogers’ house? This plot development was clearly a generic escape hatch for an actor whose contract was about to expire, but it’s not the right escape hatch for Clint. And that brings me to my next problem:
2. Outside concerns influencing in-universe plot developments. Marvel, we get it. Robert Downey, Jr.’s contract is going to expire someday soon. You’ve been sitting us down, like a five-year-old with an aging pet, to gently break the news at the end of every movie since Iron Man 3. But the fact that your studio has problems holding on to actors is no reason to make this movie into Joss Whedon And The Case Of Too Many Producer’s Notes. We don’t need explanations of Pepper and Jane’s busy lives. We don’t need a timetable of Thor’s commuting schedule. We don’t need to be lead into a quiet room and shown the specs for the New Avengers while a nurse stands by with oxygen, and we certainly don’t need that to be the final scene in the movie! Stop trying to hedge bets on real-life business problems in your fictional universe. Worst case scenario, you replace an actor, and MCU’s already proven it can survive that with the Norton/Ruffalo swap. Besides, bending plot developments around potential contract negotiations is just goofy. Because shit happens. Hemsworth could die in a car crash tomorrow. Tell the story you want to tell, not the story you might have to. It’s totally possible to weave an extended absence—or loss—into a story gracefully; Hulk’s withdrawal from the group is a perfect example. That felt real and natural and like an organic character choice, and it leaves the door open for Ruffalo’s return or absence as the case may be,
(But Christ, I hope Ruffalo returns. Because watching him and Scarlett Johannson flirt felt like watching two planets sink into orbit around each other, an inevitable and gorgeous collision. Watching them made me realize I could no longer remember a time when romance was not for teenagers. I had forgotten what it was like to watch a grown woman serve a grown man a drink and then wallop him across the face with sex and confidence and bravado. I had forgotten that in movies, men used to have hair on their chests. I had forgotten how it felt to hear an actress deliver a line so brazen that the entire theater gasped and half the men started choking.)
3. But alas, that brings us to The Thing They Did To Scarlett’s Character, and I’m afraid the news there is the worst of the whole movie. Leaving aside for a minute the ugly, rape-y implication that a sexual/reproductive violation confers monster status upon the victim, not the perpetrator, since when does the Black Widow get taken hostage by a goddamned robot? We’ve seen her play Loki, who is a trickster God, like a cheap banjo. We’ve seen her take out an entire warehouse full of Russian mobsters with her arms literally tied behind her back. She has been Tony Stark’s assistant. Ultron should not pose a problem for Widow, and yet here she is, trussed up like Nancy Drew in a cave. What’s most painful is the knowledge that a fix would have been so easy—just by showing that Widow *allowed herself to be taken* in order to funnel location information to Clint. It would have changed nothing about the movements or mechanics of the plot, while keeping well in-character for Widow. The only reason the plot works the way it does is to allow Bruce to perform a princess-rescue, which is the last thing Natasha has ever needed. An assist with a door, fine. A rescue? Bullshit.
So, to paraphrase Steve Earle, let’s magnetize this motherfucker and see what’s still floating. And what’s still floating is, oddly:
The whole movie. Despite all these major problems, this movie is still a joyous, soaring, magnificent piece of work. Every fight scene is intricate as a Faberge egg, composed of a thousand moving parts, coming together and falling apart with balletic grace. Recurrent jokes surface and resurface at beautifully unexpected intervals like dolphins off the bow wave of a ship, creating a braid of dialogue we can imagine going on long after we’ve left a scene. The world of the team feels real, lived-in—relationships seem like they’ve been caught in-progress, not started and stopped for the cameras. Joss Whedon, famous for brutal and unexpected character deaths, feints right and goes left in a gorgeous bit of misdirection that caught the entire audience wrong-footed and left us sheepishly admitting that he got us, again. An entire city sequence is shot at actual dusk, in a process that must have taken ungodly amounts of time and created volcanic, ulcerous stress over lighting, but which results in a truly memorable cityscape of twinkling yellow lights against softly glowing purple walls. Andy Serkis shows up for three minutes and eats everybody’s lunch. And Hawkeye, in-character in his professional life at least, gets to deliver a speech that feels human and real and decent and humble in the middle of a truly humbling situation. The city is flying. The city is flying, and Clint is fighting robots with a bow and arrow, and none of this makes sense, but the story rips merrily along at a torrential pace, leaving you breathless and giddy and ready to go again.
I’m ready to go again.