Doctor Strange (2016)

Marvel Studios has essentially become the king of the box office.  As superhero movies have become the go-to format for blockbusters now, they have perfected their brand and because of their success have been able to bring not just their biggest brands to the big screen (Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, et al.), but they have also been able to successfully launch their lesser known properties as well to great success in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and now Doctor Strange.  These more recent Marvel entries, really beginning with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have been superhero movies that have also served as genre vehicles as well.  Winter Soldier was in the mold of 70s espionage, Guardians was a sci-fi adventure , Ant-Man was a heist film, the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok is shaping up to be a buddy road trip.  So what is Doctor Strange.  Like these other films, it embraces the genre it finds itself in, mainly of mystic arts, and embraces the supernatural and fantastical elements of the comics.

As a world-renowned New York City neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange has his world turned upside down when a horrific accident mangles his hands and he is unable to return to his profession, despite his best efforts and pouring his resources into finding a way.  Alienating those around him, including his co-worker and former love interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and at rock bottom, he seeks out alternative methods of healing, which takes him halfway around the world to Kathmandu looking for Kamar-Taj.  He is greeted by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and taken in by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).  Shown the true nature of their mystical order, as powerful sorcerers, he is taken in by them and begins to be taught by them.  Initially, his drive to learn is fueled by his desire to become a great neurosurgeon once again, but he eventually becomes aware of forces threatening the order and the planet.  Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a sorcerer who left the order after becoming disillusioned by it, and his zealots seek to undo protections safeguarding Earth and bring about its destruction at the hands of Dormammu, a powerful interdimensional being.

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For its time, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was the blueprint for doing superhero movies, and making sure everything was purely grounded in a real world to give the actions of the hero real meaning.  The problem was so many other copied that blueprint when their source material didn’t really lend itself to that kind of story.  Part of what has allowed Marvel to succeed where DC has failed is that they can modulate their tone and adapt their stories to the realities of a given character’s genre.  And they give it just enough connective tissue with the other franchises in their cinematic universe to create a larger world that works (By the way, it’s possible that Infinity War may put this to the test when all of these worlds collide).

Doctor Strange is unlike most Marvel films that have preceded it.  In terms on content, featuring different dimensions and talked of a multiverse (which opens up lots of future MCU possibilities), it closest comparison is Thor.  But Strange goes further in embracing the, well, strange.  The film goes all in on the elements of sorcery inherent in bringing this character to the big screen.  There is no way this film could be made in the mold of Nolan’s Dark Knight movies.  But because it has the flexibility to be its own film, it can get weird and psychedelic, creating some amazing visual sequences as Strange enters this new reality.  It shares some DNA with The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies in terms of how they handle the wizardry and its interaction with the real world.

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Marvel hired Scott Derrickson, a horror film veteran (specifically, supernatural horror), to direct the film.  He was an interesting choice and he is a choice who paid off well as some of his instincts from that genre work well here when it comes to interacting with the mystical and supernatural.  Also, his Christian worldview comes into play a bit as well, as Strange develops from an arrogant man at the start of the film to someone by the end who embodies self-sacrifice as a virtue.  I think Derrickson also does a good job of accentuating how nearly all of the people who come to Kamar-Taj are broken in some way; Strange with his mangled hands, Mordo and The Ancient One and even Kaecilius with their own scars, both internal and external.  It’s one of the more powerful, if slightly more subtle, themes of the film.

The film is filled with a pretty stellar cast.  Cumberbatch fits the role of Strange perfectly, with some definite similarities to his Sherlock character.  I think his Stephen Strange also shares some similarities with Tony Stark in terms of incredibly smart, successful men becoming something more and better than they were when they were seemingly on top of the world before their lives were radically changed by events beyond their control.  Ejiofor and Swinton are both involved in his character’s training, and both are wonderful actors who are almost too good for the parts.  Swinton’s Ancient One brings up an important theme of contradictions and how people respond to them.  Ejiofor’s Mordo is a strict fundamentalist.  There has been some criticism of white-washing the role of The Ancient One in not making the character Asian, but the explanation given by the director of it being the least-bad option makes sense.  Mads Mikkelsen brings a great presence as the villain.  McAdams is easily the most under-utilized of the main cast.  Her character is only tangentially related to the story; only appearing in one scene that is not set in the hospital and only being given one scene with the main cast beyond Cumberbatch.  Benedict Wong and Michael Stuhlbarg also have supporting roles; with Wong’s character (coincidentally named) Wong as the Kamar-Taj “librarian” being the more significant role compared to Stuhlbarg’s rival surgeon.

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A review of Doctor Strange is not complete without touching on the visuals of the film.  The visual effects are truly impressive in this film, some of the best in a Marvel film to date.  There are sequences of psychedelic interdimensional traveling that Strange does that would seems laughable or cartoonish if they looked cheap in any way.  More impressive, though, are the special effects that transform the real world environments that the characters find themselves in.  The opening sequence of the film plays out like an extended version of the 12 Grimmauld Place scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with a fight thrown in for good measure.  However, the most impressive sequence is the one where Strange, Mordo, Kaecilius and his zealots enter a “mirror dimension” that makes New York City turn into an Inception-like maze of a city expanding in a way that breaks the laws of physics.

Doctor Strange occupies a slightly different space than previous Marvel superhero films.  Strange is not a character who must learn to harness his newfound power.  He is a character who not only trains but actually studies to become good at what he does.  Benedict Cumberbatch is well-suited for the role.  Scott Derrickson is the right director for the film.  And they are surrounded by a strong supporting cast.  It’s a dazzling visual film, maybe even worthy of being seen in 3-D, and it’s got a solid story and character arc with some important themes of brokenness, self-sacrifice, and contradictions.  There’s humor sprinkled in as well.  From top to bottom, it is one of the best origin stories for a comic book adaptation that I have seen so far and another feather in the cap for Marvel.

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Rating: 4.5/5 stars

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