The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a hell of a lot more… strange with the introduction of magic and a new threat. SPOILER-FREE REVIEW.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Katrina Durden
Brilliant, yet arrogant, neurosurgeon, Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), is on top of the world until a car wreck (don’t text and drive) damages his hands beyond repair. Desperate for a way to regain the use of his lively hood, he travels to Nepal to seek the mysterious temple known as Kamar-Taj. At the temple, Strange begins to train under Mordo (Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Swinton) in the art of the mystic to heal his hands. And maybe learn there is more himself than just being a brilliant doctor.
Marvel movies follow a template. We all just need to make peace with our dear and fluffy lord on that one. Introduce powerful MacGuffin, inner turmoil, fight sequence, training/building, fight sequence, redemption moment, final battle, mid and end credit scenes setting up the next chapter. All that doesn’t take away my love of these movies. Doctor Strange doesn’t deviate from that formula, but writers Spaihts, Cargill, and Derrickson (also in the director’s chair) do what they can to keep the recipe from tasting stale. It doesn’t hurt that Strange is not a typical superhero and his introduction into the MCU adds a new element to the mythology the films are building.
The cast helps to make this movie a more engaging origin story. Casting Cumberbatch in the titular role was a stroke of genius. He is a brilliant actor who carries the emotional weight of a complicated character. Strange is a damaged man even before his accident. High intellect and an eidetic memory cannot mask the prevailing amounts of insecurity that rolls off the good doctor in waves. It is never said out loud, but it is in his actions, etched all over his beautifully unique face. While there is a physical threat he must combat, much of Strange’s conflict is the internal battle of between the kind of man the he could be and the man he is.
Strange is not a fighter in the traditional sense. Each hero we’ve had in the MCU have been a warrior, been given powers, or can rely on technology to aid them in a fight. Not Strange. He is hindered by injury and must rely on his cleverness, magical items, and a hell of a lot of luck to assist him in his training and clashes with the zealot Kaecilus (Mikkelsen).
It is difficult to not talk about Swinton’s Ancient One without addressing the controversy of making what is traditionally an Asian, older male in the comics into a White, middle-aged woman. Derrickson and MCU Demigod, Kevin Feige, have giving an explanation as to why they made that choice. It makes sense in a way, but it also holds the stench of rationalization after the fact. There are so few parts for Asian actors. Despite the majority of the film’s plot takes place in Nepal, Strange has just one speaking part for an Asian character. Benedict Wong’s librarian, coincidentally also named Wong.
Putting that aside for a moment, Swinton makes a perfect Ancient One. The actress is an odd bird who seems to already have an understanding of the supernatural world. Swinton presence also lends a significant amount of emotional weight to the film’s most poignant moment that I’m not so sure another actor could give in such a quietly perfect way.
While Ejiofor and McAdams are underused and underdeveloped as Mordo and Christine Palmer, it functions as more of a setup of what is to come for these individuals. Strange is an origin story for the titular character, but Mordo as well. For those who are not familiar with the comics, Mordo and Strange do not see eye to eye (putting it mildly), and the film gives an explanation as to why. Palmer somewhat falls into the almost-girlfriend hole several female characters in the MCU have tumbled into before, but she acts as a stand in for the audience when the magic comes to the real world. Reacting to the insanity taking place around her with hilarious confusion. But Palmer, in the comics, acts as the medical professional the heroes can seek out without having to go to a hospital. The film allows her to act in that capacity for Strange and possibly future MCU movies.
As per usual, the big bad makes for a weak spot in Doctor Strange. Kaecilius and his gang of zealots want to destroy the Sanctum Sanctorums that protect the Earth to usher in the régime of Dormammu, the ruler of the Dark Dimension, for… reasons. Mikkelsen does his best to make the villainous Kaecilius as non-generic as possible. The reality-bending magic and the smoldering ring of crazy around his eyes makes you briefly forget he is a cookie cutter baddie.
The true standout of the film is the visual effects. Trippy and colorful, they look like something from a nightmare/dream from surrealist Salvador Dalí. Derrickson, who built a career on low-budget horror, had a good time spending that Marvel money and it shows. While I saw the film in 2D, I am more than willing to deal with the headache and possible nausea to see it again in 3D. A two-minute sequence where the Ancient One shows Strange the possibilities and realms beyond what he knows would make all of that worth it. The fight sequences are like Inception on steroids. The buildings, sidewalks, and fire escapes bend and fold upon themselves making the chase sequences like a massive game of the floor is lava. The heroes and villains must jump from one area to the next without touching the air, or risk falling into oblivion.
Like 2015’s Ant-Man (damn, that was only last year? There has been, like, 20 superhero films released since then), Doctor Strange handles the climactic battle in a unique way. I can’t get too far into that here (comeback Monday for the Spoilery breakdown), but it was refreshing to see the hero handle the big bad in a craftier way instead of just beating them into submission. Strange is a man of intellect after all.
While it is formulamatic in nature, the cast and special effect push Doctor Strange beyond expectations and fills the Marvel Cinematic Universe with possibilities.
4 out of 5 Stars