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Doctor Strange (2016)

strangeDIRECTOR: Scott Derrickson

CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams

REVIEW:

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse.  Doctor Strange fans are likely rejoicing as, after many years of waiting while other superhero franchises flourished, their hero has finally made his way to the big screen.  For most Doctor Strange fans, the product will be worth the wait, even if it doesn’t scale its way to the top of the MCU.  Doctor Strange is entertaining and visually dazzling, but saddled with the obligatory tropes and limitations of “the origin story”.

We’re introduced to brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose hotshot career takes a nosedive one night when, driving too fast and not paying attention to the road, he crushes his hands in a brutal car crash.  Strange recovers—for the most part—but his hands will never be steady again.  Lost without a sense of purpose and desperate for a miracle cure, Strange travels the world and winds up at a peculiar monastery in Nepal, where he trains in the “mystic arts” under the tutelage of the mysterious Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton) and her disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), who teach him to bend reality, control time, and access myriad alternate dimensions.  But there are dangers as well, represented by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former protege gone rogue, who has stolen a spell book and performed forbidden rituals to summon Dormammu, a world devouring being from the Dark Dimension, who has his sights set on Earth.

strange2Doctor Strange is probably the most special effects heavy of any MCU film thus far (Thor might come closest).  Given the characters and subject matter of the comic series it’s based on, this might be inevitable, but there are times when the audience’s connection with the characters is lessened by the awareness that we’re watching actors fly around Matrix-style in a CGI environment.  Probably the most visually extravagant sequence, and one of the most visually inventive chase scenes in recent film, is a street chase where the characters appear to be running through an M.C. Escher painting that also recalls Paris folding over on itself in Inception, although taken to a larger and trippier scale here.  But however technically dazzling the effects might be, the early character-establishing scenes are stronger than later on when the characters take a backseat to all of the visual razzle dazzle.

When it comes to origin stories, Doctor Strange is wittier and less generic than Captain America: The First Avenger but doesn’t quite have the panache of Iron Man.  The opening up of the “multiverse” and Strange’s ability to bend reality and control time could open up new possibilities for the overall reality of the MCU, and his climactic face-to-face confrontation with the “big bad” Dormammu is at least a little more clever in the way it’s resolved than just a physical altercation.  Like most origin stories, the film unavoidably spends so much time establishing Strange’s character, his training and learning his powers, that time is limited for things like developing the villains (Kaecilius and his goon squad are thinly-drawn minions of the little-seen Dormammu), the obligatory romantic subplot (just as half-baked here as Batman Begins), or setting up a strong climax.  The conclusion is a little anti-climactic, though it does leave interesting possible routes open going forward.  The opening acts borrow a page from Iron Man, with an ingenious but arrogant and self-absorbed man going through a harrowing ordeal and learning to care for others’ welfare, and Batman Begins, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s initially debonair Strange donning robes and an unkempt beard and wandering to the Far East for training at a mysterious monastery a la Christian Bale in Begins.  The film moves between serious moments and low-key humor that doesn’t feel forced or awkwardly integrated, and while Cumberbatch’s Strange isn’t a one-liner machine on the level of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, he has a few utterances of dry sarcasm (Cumberbatch’s American accent and line delivery make him sound a bit like Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House, and the resemblance is accentuated by our opening scenes with the brilliant but arrogant doctor).  Also, unlike, say, Ant-Man (which desperately name-dropped and threw in various cameos to remind us it’s in the same universe as The Avengers), the fact that Doctor Strange battles threats from other dimensions makes it more plausible that The Avengers are not involved in the action and apart from a brief throwaway reference, they’re not mentioned (although for those who stick around for the obligatory mid-credits scene, there is a cameo by Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, possibly setting up the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok).  Doctor Strange might be set in at least one of the same universes as The Avengers, but it doesn’t feel like it depends on them to justify its own existence, which is something not every MCU installment has been able to say for itself.

strange3The cast might feature one of the most pedigreed line-ups in a comic book movie since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, with Oscar nominees Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton leading the way.  There was a time when such “serious actors” would either scorn superhero movies or pull a Marlon Brando in Superman and sleepwalk through while picking up a paycheck, but that’s not the case here.  Doctor Strange‘s collection of distinguished thespians, like those in Nolan’s Batman films, take the pulpy material seriously, and the strong performances, especially from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, play a not insignificant factor in anchoring the fantastical proceedings.  Benedict Cumberbatch, whose casting was met with mixed reactions when first announced, seems as perfectly cast as Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, or Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (to whom Strange’s personality bears a passing resemblance).  He looks like the comic character, especially after donning the goatee and signature costume and cape, and he’s believable while either tossing out dry one-liners or in more serious dramatic moments.  Cumberbatch owns the title role from his introduction.  In addition to playing the title role of Strange, Cumberbatch also does double duty as the voice of the behind-the-scenes “big bad” Dormammu (recalling his dual role in The Hobbit, where he provided voice and motion capture performance for both Smaug the dragon and Sauron).  Tilda Swinton projects a commanding presence and sage wisdom to play The Ancient One something like a cross between a Jedi Master and a Harry Potter wizard, and in the midst of all the flashy special effects and action sequences, Chiwetel Ejiofor manages to give Mordo a modicum of depth and complexity; his parting ways with Strange in the climax feels earned and believable.  This material could have easily come off a bit ridiculous, but strong thespians like Cumberbatch, Swinton, and Ejiofor give it a measure of gravitas.  Alas, like most MCU villains not named Loki, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is underdeveloped and underused with fuzzy motives apart from some vague monologuing about eternal life, and doesn’t get much to do besides chase Cumberbatch and Ejiofor around.  Benedict Wong supplies a little comic relief as the inscrutable guardian Wong, while Rachel McAdams is to Doctor Strange as Katie Holmes was to Batman Begins, the thankless role of the perfunctory love interest whose semi-romance with the title character is thinly-developed.  Small roles include Michael Stuhlbarg and Benjamin Bratt.

Director Scott Derrickson is a longtime devoted fan of the comic series, and it shows.  Among this year’s many comic book film installments, Doctor Strange lands somewhere in the middle; it’s not as good as Deadpool or Captain America: Civil War, but it’s better than X-Men: Apocalypse and far ahead of DC’s debacles Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad.  All the comic book origin story tropes and limitations are in place, but dazzling visual effects and a strong cast playing it straight do enough to overcome them to make Doctor Strange, if not always necessarily “magical”, at least a solid building block from which more inventive things may yet come.

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