There are myriad theories about why the ever-bullish superhero-movie market boomed around the turn of the millennium. Writers, directors, and producers who were raised on the daring comics of the 1980s came of age? A populace still reeling from 9/11 embraced stories about innate good triumphing over apocalyptic evil? Emotionally stunted millennials craved juvenile, nostalgia-rooted tales of derring-do? Surely some combination of all those factors is at play. But perhaps most important, on the eve of the post-X-Men superhero explosion, two movies hit screens: The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. They changed special effects irrevocably and, in doing so, enabled the birth of a generation of believably superpowered evil-smashers.
A decade and a half later, we’ve become inured to the CGI wizardry of the modern superhero flick. Iron Man soars on his boot-rockets and we yawn. The Man of Steel punches a 40-foot-tall bone monster and we play Candy Crush to pass the time until the fight’s over. The Guardians of the Galaxy fire up their spaceship and it’s just another way of getting from point A to point B. To paraphrase the famed slogan for 1978’s Superman: We believe a man can fly, but do we care? Take heart, numbed viewers. This week's Marvel outing, Doctor Strange, is the first superhero movie in many years that crafts genuine thrills with the raw material of computer-generated imagery.
The key here is that Strange uses CGI to do things you can only do with CGI. More often than not, effects-heavy films exploit digital techniques to craft imagery that could, theoretically, be built with practical effects. The value-add is simply that the sights are dramatically more believable and fluid. It’s far easier on the eyes to watch Mark Ruffalo transform into the Hulk with the help of Industrial Light and Magic than it is to revisit Bill Bixby morph into a green-painted Lou Ferrigno — but that’s a difference of degree, not of distinction. Same with the new Star Wars films' soaring X-wings and alien sidekicks: Careful use of mattes, wires, costumes, and the like could have gotten the same job done. Even Avatar could have been done with glow sticks and face paint. The contrast is technical, not conceptual.
Not so with Doctor Strange. From the very first scene, director Scott Derrickson and the artisans at ILM construct things that are wholly impossible to create with practical effects. In that sequence, Mads Mikkelsen’s death-cultist Kaecilius and his cohort are on the run from Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One on the streets of London. We’re introduced to a recurring visual concept: the warped cityscapes of the Mirror Dimension. Buildings and streets slide apart and reassemble in wild new shapes like sentient Legos. Gravity stops making sense in the process and characters on different surfaces stand upright at right angles to each other. The affair reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft’s line about the island of Cthulhu: The geometry is all wrong.
Let’s pause for a moment and address the inevitable counterargument: "Isn’t that stuff just a rip-off of Inception?" Well, yes and no. Sure, it was in Christopher Nolan’s stultifying dreamworld that we first saw the Escheresque folding of city blocks. Doctor Strange’s debt to that idea is considerable. But I would argue that Strange out-Inceptions Inception. Nolan’s characters, for the most part, simply gawked in awed wonder when physics bent in on itself. In Strange, that kind of visual is just the jumping-off point — literally and figuratively.
In Doctor Strange, the characters don’t just see these perversions of reality. They play around in them. With seamless motion, they leap onto newly made bridges and walls. They cause sections of pavement to rise up like fists. They hop from one relative gravitational pull to another, the nature of their jumps defying verbal description. We shouldn’t throw Inception under the bus, by any means — but we should recognize the brilliant ways the Marvel Studios team has built on that earlier film's ideas to produce something unique and fresh.
The less-epic images are worthy of admiration, as well. Gamers have spent the past decade endorsing one of their medium’s most groundbreaking first-person shooters, Valve’s Portal, and its DNA is firmly embedded in Doctor Strange. Portal offered a visual treat by forcing players to create miniature wormholes between surfaces that tossed you from, say, a floor to a distant wall. In doing so, you would experience vomit-tempting lurches of perspective, abruptly going from a vertically falling position to a horizontal one. Strange’s images use various methods of teleportation that exploit this very concept. To be fair, so did Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, but a bit of cribbing doesn’t make an effect any less powerful.
Speaking of power: The more conventional punch-and-kick fight scenes are given a substantial jolt through the use of CGI weaponry. Over and over again, characters use an arming technique that I, at least, had never seen before. They put their hands together, then slowly separate them, pulling strands of energy like taffy that coalesces into a blade or a bludgeon. The objects don’t merely flash into existence — they have to be woven. If you don’t want to simply hit someone, you can also get a spell going, and the visual manifestation of that process is eye-catching, as well: Little hexagrams of light encircle your wrists and follow your movements like 3-D cursors on those computers from Minority Report. The difference here is they don’t look like Mac icons — their crackling, randomly spinning strings of golden energy suggest the barely contained chaos of Kylo Ren’s crossed lightsaber.
Sure, some of the big CGI set pieces in Doctor Strange are cliché. The good doctor enters a cosmic plane of floating nighttime spheres, which looks the same as any other blockbuster's outer-space scene. Two magicians’ astral forms fight each other in a clash of hacky movie ghosts. The climax features a multicolored storm raging around the peak of a skyscraper, and anyone who remembers Gozer’s endgame in Ghostbusters will be unimpressed. But even in that final action sequence, we get something deeply unusual and hard to imagine being done with practical methods: a fight where some characters and objects are moving in reverse time and others are running forward. It’s visually baffling in the best possible way.
Not all of these elements are sui generis, as we’ve noted. But Doctor Strange feels, at the very least, like a greatest-hits album of revolutionary CGI techniques conceived in the past 15-odd years. You could make the argument that this potpourri of flashy stunts is just a way of papering over the film's rote hero’s-journey plot. But the thrills, thank goodness, aren’t cheap. They incorporate real-life humans into dreams previously confined to animation, allowing us to imagine ourselves in their place. As a result, it also becomes the rare movie that's genuinely improved when you see it in 3-D — you've already entered a world fundamentally unlike any you could conceive of in tactile reality, so the unnatural nature of 3-D blends with the generally surreal nature of the filmmaking. The movie sends a clear message to anyone willing to listen: We have the tools to create something new, so why keep using them to update the old?