I knew I was watching something very different from a typical Marvel movie when hands started growing out of Benedict Cumberbatch’s fingers. They began to kaleidoscope on top of one another, endless digits rising out of endless digits, the look on Cumberbatch’s face like something out of a horror movie. The image was reminiscent of body horror, like the surreal effects of The Fly or The Thing.
That short scene is part of a surprisingly long, trippy sequence in which Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange travels the cosmos by way of a bad trip induced by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The sequence was a visual delight after what, up to that point, had been a fairly straightforward story about an arrogant surgeon who mangles his hands in a car accident and turns to Eastern methods as a last resort. It’s safe to say that Strange gets more than he bargains for in Swinton’s guru. She’s no peddler of experimental procedures; rather, she is Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, defender of the planet from hostile external forces and commander of the planet’s magical defenses.
If that sounds silly or stupid, that’s because it is. But this is the same movie universe with spandex-wearing super-soldiers, Norse gods, and a green anger monster. I think a little magic merits some suspension of disbelief.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention the talking raccoon. There’s a talking raccoon in this universe too.
The LSD visuals are the best part about Doctor Strange, but it has other merits too. Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor stand out in particular. Swinton plays the Ancient One, Strange’s teacher in the mystical arts and a Celtic woman with a cheeky sense of humor and a dark secret. Ejiofor plays Mordo, another of the Ancient One’s pupils who becomes an ally of Strange as they fight Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, an Ancient One disciple gone rogue. I also enjoyed the action sequences, especially the final battle, which were not only visually sumptuous but endlessly clever.
Cumberbatch is always a welcome presence, of course, and Rachel McAdams is a grounding force, though she’s underused. Like other Marvel movies with big ideas that don’t quite reach greatness (see Ant-Man and Thor: The Dark World), Doctor Strange feels like its weirdness is bursting at its Marvel Studio seams. While director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and writers Jon Spaights and C. Robert Cargill fill the edges of the movie’s story with exciting new characters and future story possibilities, they feel mildly hamstrung by the need to tell Strange’s origin story. But as we’ve already seen with Guardians of the Galaxy, even the best filmmakers can’t totally break free of their Marvel overlords.
I knew I was watching something very different from a typical Harry Potter movie when Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander walked into the magic world’s equivalent of a speakeasy. The effect of this scene was much like the Mos Eisley cantina scene in the original Star Wars: here, in one room, was the underworld to show that there was a whole world of magical cultures and peoples to be explored. If Fantastic Beasts as a whole is any indication, Warner Brothers fully intends to.
This movie really should not have worked. It had all the makings of a cash-in, a capital-C Commodity based on a short, one-off book written for charity that would be full of callbacks to the Potterverse, relying wholly on its audience’s nostalgia for any link to the old movies. When you heard they were maybe making it into a trilogy or even up to 5 (5!) movies, the only thing you could think was that the studio knew it had an automatic moneymaking machine on its hands. So imagine my surprise when I found that not only was Fantastic Beasts just as good as any of the Potter movies, it might actually be…better?
Hold that thought for just a second. We’ll come back to it.
Newt Scamander, as played by Eddie Redmayne, is not as charismatic a lead as Harry Potter, as played by Daniel Radcliffe. Scamander, a magizoologist in New York for, well, extralegal reasons, is bookish, reserved, quiet. But like Swinton’s Ancient One in Strange, Redmayne’s Scamander has secrets and knows more than he lets on. He’s a warm protagonist to root for with layers to peel back for our enjoyment. At first, Scamander is detained by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) for being an unregistered wizard. But when a No-Maj (the American word for Muggle, played by Dan Fogler) gets involved, Goldstein and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), end up helping Scamander against the wishes of the magical law enforcement, represented by Graves (an icy Colin Farrell).
There’s also a cultish, anti-magic family lingering on the edges of the plot. Its matriarch, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), stands on the steps of banks and street corners spewing fire and brimstone against witches and wizards and their ilk. She takes in orphan children, including Credence (Ezra Miller), which sounds nice, except she also beats them if they show any signs of or interest in magic. It’s a dark subplot that deals with adolescent insecurity and the adults that take advantage of them. Like the Harry Potter movies before it, Fantastic Beasts avoids the pitfalls that may come with combining such real-life themes with spells and magical creatures and instead depicts an effective, coming-of-age analogy.
I said earlier that Fantastic Beasts may be better than any of the Harry Potter movies. This might be recency bias, but unlike the Harry Potter movies before it, Fantastic Beasts isn’t beholden the plot of an 800-page book with a story spread out over a school year. You feel it in the movie’s easy flow, in its characters’ disparate motivations that gradually come together into unity, in the freedom the movie has to fill its edges with the titular fantastic beasts, lingering on their beauty and strangeness, allowing them to become characters in their own rights. You also feel the movie’s originality in the screenplay’s willingness to let the audience figure things out for itself by what’s happening onscreen, rather than dealing with plot through tedious exposition. Director David Yates directed every Harry Potter movie since Goblet of Fire, and finally he broke free of the tyranny of the adaptation and made himself a movie.