MOVIE REVIEW: Doctor Strange
"DOCTOR STRANGE"-- 4 STARS
No matter how much superhero fatigue you have (or don't have), one has to continue to be impressed with what Disney/Marvel is doing with each Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. Now in its third phase, Marvel continues to take C-level and D-list comic book characters and titles, breath cinematic life into them with top-notch talent in front of and behind the camera, and turn the obscure in newly minted household names and merchandising windfalls. "Doctor Strange" continues the studio's blueprint of Midas Touch success while jubilantly kicking down the door for magic and mysticism in the MCU. You may not know him yet, but Stephen Strange is a major player and huge addition to an already-loaded heroic panorama.
Devout comic fans will recognize this slightly modernized origin story transported from the character's purple haze beginnings from 1963. The successful hot shot Stephen Strange is a brilliant and arrogant New York City neurosurgeon, played with heady charisma by Oscar nominee and cult sex symbol Benedict Cumberbatch. The good doctor delights in all of the high-class fobs and toys of the filthy rich lifestyle afforded to him by his steely talent, impeccable track record, and expert hands. One of the few people he values, though too often pushes away instead, is his professional partner and old flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
All of that decadence comes crashing down when Stephen and, more importantly, his million-dollar hands are severely injured in an tumbling automobile wreck. Extensive nerve damage through his upper extremities all but ends Strange's career, but not without exhaustive research from Stephen to find any and every alternative to regain his strength and talent. Broke and even more alone, one inspiring tangent, along with big doses of fate and destiny, take Strange to Kathmandu, Nepal and the slum doorstep of the Ancient One (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton). The seemingly ageless monk-like teacher and sorcerer is the leader of Earth's global Sanctum Sanctorums, unseen stations of defense against a galaxy of extra-dimensional and magical menaces.
Yoking his intellectual capacity and untapped heroism, the Ancient One reveals this new astral world and trains Stephen in the art of sorcery alongside her top pupil Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the deadpan librarian Master Wong (Benedict Wong). His promising addition to the fold and fast ascension in ability (hooray, training montage!) come at a time when the Sanctum Sanctorums are being targeted by Kaecilius (professional movie villain Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One who has become the corrupt and powerful harbinger of the formidable Dormammu, the off-screen ruling entity of the Dark Dimension. Throw in a Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto and you have a party where gray temples and weird facial hair are cool again.
True to the often-mentioned-on-this-website blueprint, "Doctor Strange" follows the formula of success with structural similarity and goofy joy, but some of the same regrettable MCU flaws exist. In a growing and disturbing trend, this film adds another underwritten, underwhelming, confusing, and single-minded villain of banal world destruction to the discard pile. This is a misuse of Mads Mikkelsen's engrossing talent (though promising roots are planted for a far better villain for the anticipated sequel). The same can be said for yet another sidebar love interest thrown into the fray for little overall purpose or growth. "Spotlight" Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams also deserved better and falls far below the likes of Natalie Portman's Jane Foster and Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter.
A few noteworthy course corrections from previous MCU weaknesses exist to bolster “Doctor Strange.” Chiwetel Ejiofor and his gravitas make anything better. Greater than the forgettable love interest as a strong female character, the much-maligned casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One turns out to be better than any Fu Manchu/Dragon Lady Asian stereotype that could have occurred. Her regal presence was the anchor the film needed, overcoming any whitewashed complaints. Secondly, most Marvel movies, outside of the “Captain America” themes backed by Alan Silvestri, have been criticized for unremarkable and insignificant film scores. Top-notch Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino presents a vast improvement with his baroque-tinged soundtrack.
Luckily, Benedict Cumberbatch shakes his chakras and saves the day, just as he should. The newly 40-year-old Londoner smiles more in the first ten minutes of this movie than we’ve seen in his ten years on the mainstream film scene. Looking every bit the part from head-to-toe and carrying his signature cleverness and witty intelligence throughout, Cumberbatch is a stroke of dream casting and an absolute coup for Marvel over the short list of Colin Farrell, Joaquin Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, and Jared Leto, among others. In Cumberbatch, they have freshness, enthusiasm, and instant fanboy credibility over that list of head-cases and introverts.
The biggest factor "Doctor Strange" gets right in spades is the showy and gleeful spectacle required to bring the new Sorcerer Supreme to the big screen. The visual effects provided by Industrial Light and Magic and Luma Pictures create a psychedelic kaleidoscope of jaw-dropping imagery lens by cinematographer Ben Davis that easily comprise the best special effects work of the year. Think kinetic versions of M.C. Escher's art colliding with the curviest elements of “The Matrix.” Bending entire landscapes on imaginary digital gimbals and twisting architecture as if it were made with cogs and gears, the vivid creativity is off the charts. Combine those wonderments with trippy dimensional planes and the visualized manifestations of the sorcerers’ incantation powers and you have an rich visual feast that is worth every penny of the IMAX 3D up-charge.
If you can't keep up with the "Harry Potter"-level magical jargon and lingo, don't worry. Former Marvel head honcho Stan Lee couldn't either when he and original creator Steve Ditko fleshed the character out, choosing references and incantations from multiple mythological sources that sounded cool to them more than having any specific roots or purposes. Maybe the film franchise will get its own glossary after the shekels and simoleons roll in. After all, this is a Disney/Marvel movie, even if it is steered by the "Sinister" horror series team of director Scott Derrickson and scribe C. Robert Cargill, with a screenplay assist from Jon Spaihts of "Prometheus." "Doctor Strange" is meant to be safe, neat, tidy, unabashed, and occasionally groovy fun and not an entire season of J.J. Abrams's "Lost" with more deep references and questions than answers and revelations.
LESSON #1: WHEN NATURAL LAW AND SCIENCE CANNOT EXPLAIN WHAT IS SEEN-- In this fictitious world, magic and mysticism are the great explainers of phenomena that supersede what science can quantify and the human philosophy of natural law have sought to explain. As a true man of science and a learned man of the human condition, Stephen has trouble wrapping his head around these visible and invisible new forces. As the Ancient One tells him "not everything has to make sense."
LESSON #2: FIXING WHAT IS BROKEN INSIDE AND OUT-- Following his car wreck, Stephen is obsessed with repairing his broken hands through any possible scientific and medical means. He’s a doctor, a constant fixer. What Strange doesn’t see is that he injured more than his hands. The accident and lost livelihood broke his confidence and dulled his inner edge. In classic “mind over matter” comeuppance, Stephen learns that his true healing and strengthening is more mental than physical.
LESSON #3: THE MANY WAYS TO SAVE LIVES-- There are examples all over this adventure film of measures and causes used to save lives. At the center is an egotistical failed doctor who finds new duties, new methods, and the sense of self-sacrifice within his broadened capabilities to still save people, both those personally close to him and the unseen innocents in the crosshairs of collateral damage.