A film review by Craig J. Koban November 12, 2016


2016, PG-13, 115 mins.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange / Doctor Strange  /  Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer  /  Benjamin Bratt as Jonathan Pangborn  /  Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One  /  Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Karl Mordo  /  Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius  /  Benedict Wong as Wong  /  Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Nicodemus West

Written by Scott Derrickson  /  Written by Scott Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill


DOCTOR STRANGE is the 14th entry in the long standing Marvel Cinematic Universe, and although it does fall victim to - and readily embrace - the standard obligatory accoutrements of the super hero origin film, this latest comic book extravaganza from the studio doesn't seem to be demonstrating any obvious signs of genre or creative fatigue.  

The success of DOCTOR STRANGE has more to do with how its other elements gel together so fluidly and help segregate itself as a solid standalone adventure apart from the MCU while simultaneously helping to set up future films going forward.  That's a decidedly difficult task to pull off without one of these solo films feeling like a lazy placeholder event for new films to come, but DOCTOR STRANGE is ambitiously - ahem! - strange enough to proudly stand out. 

Based on one of the older Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Marvel Comics creations from over five decades ago, DOCTOR STRANGE refreshingly taps into a more spiritual realm of ancient magic, which allows for the titular character to have a uniqueness apart from his other costumed crusaders of justice.  The film is also positively brimming with unbridled visual imagination in its mind and time bending imagery, which gives the whole proceedings an enthrallingly trippy vibe that other MCU films - or most other action films as of late - have.  Even when the magic dispensing hero faces off against unmemorable and ill defined antagonists (a flaw that has dogged many previous MCU films) and gets a bit wonky and convoluted with its own inherent world building and internal logic, there's no denying that DOCTOR STRANGE is an energizingly eye-popping original entry set within the larger framework of the MCU.   



That, and the main hero himself is endlessly compelling as a character, despite coming off as a bit too Tony Starkian for his own good at times throughout the film.  We are quickly introduced to the deeply arrogant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, thoroughly magnetic and oozing charm here, albeit with an inconsistently forced American accent) that's the worst kind of narcissistic genius - he's almost always right when it comes to his patients, and takes great relish in pointing out the mistakes of his lesser colleagues.  Much like TV's Gregory House, Strange is disliked by his fellow medical associates, even those that respect his medical brilliance.  Well, Strange is not smart enough to know that one should never take their eyes off of the road while speeding their sports car on a country road to check incoming picture messages on his phone, which unfortunately leads to a horrific crash, leaving the surgeon brutally injured.  This may be the first super hero film that also serves as a timely and relevant PSA about the perils of distracted driving. 

Strange miraculously survives his hellish accident, but his hands - the very things he relies on for his job - are left disfigured and nearly unusable.  His friend and colleague (a somewhat spunky, but somewhat wasted Rachel McAdams) tries to support and nurture Strange, but he becomes so loathsomely introverted during his recovery that he all but pushes away what few friends he has left in the world.  Desperately seeking for a way to cure his condition, Strange finds himself traveling to a secret monastery in Nepal that's ruled over by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who reveals herself to be an Yoda-like practitioner of magic, supported by her number two in Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofer).  Predictably, the staunch man of science that is Strange refuses to believe in what he sees as nonsensical hocus-pocus, but when The Ancient One provides absolute proof of her abilities to manipulate the tangible world as well as other dimensions, Strange becomes obsessed with learning her ways.  Concurrent to this, of course, is a nefarious villain in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) with aspirations - albeit cryptic and vague - of world domination and destroying his former master in The Ancient One. 

One of the failings of DOCTOR STRANGE, as mentioned, is this main baddie in question.  Mads Mikkelsen is a magnificent actor with great screen presence, but he's regrettably saddled with a somewhat tedious character that never feels like a horrifyingly intense threat.  That, and his rationales for his evil ways are murky at best, not to mention that his overall appearance isn't all that intimidating (his facial painted eyes makes him look like a discarded heavy metal bandmate from the 70's).  Then there's the nature of The Ancient One herself, always portrayed as an Asian in the comic books, but here in the film played by the very not Asian Swinton.  The actress certainly brings a level of ethereal oddness to the part that suits it well, but it doesn't help to override the beyond obvious whitewashing of the character as a whole.  The producers publicly stated that they wished to avoid Asian stereotypes by not casting an Asian in the role, which, in pure hindsight, seems like a laughably flimsy justification.  Are they implying that no Asian actors of talent could impart three dimensionality in the role?  Swinton is a supremely gifted actress and I enjoyed her presence in DOCTOR STRANGE, but the racism that permeates her casting - whether intentional on unintentional - taints this film.   

Still, it's not an overwhelmingly glaring and obtrusive distraction here, because the film has so much unbridled imagination and fearless ambition on display.  Director Scott Derrickson and his visual effects maestros create a technological marvel in DOCTOR STRANGE in terms of pure craftsmanship.  Both transfixingly gorgeous and stomach churningly loopy, the film conjures up bold, colorful, and fiendishly innovative out-of-body sequences out of pure nothingness, showcasing Strange and allies segueing between reality and unreality in manners that make the cityscape morphing moments in INCEPTION look cheerfully quaint.  The dazzling spatial inventiveness conjured up in particular inside the "Mirror Dimension" alone - a realm where the magic of the heroes and villains won't harm normal human souls - involves buildings, for example, twisting, contorting, and folding in on themselves like gigantic origami puzzles.  DOCTOR STRANGE is an ultra rare blockbuster entertainment that triumphantly justifies viewing the film in 3D, which does the multi-dimensional imagery full justice. 

Then, of course, there's the main character himself.  Doctor Strange has a bit more going on than your typical Marvel super hero.  Firstly, he's a narcissistic jerk that's a hell of lot more self-serving than most comic book characters.  His very ego is shattered with his accident, which ultimately makes him become a very emotionally vulnerable character that tries to find a manner of physically and spiritually redeeming himself.  In many ways, his introduction to powers beyond normal comprehension becomes a revelatory sign for him to not only heal himself, but to protect the defenseless against such power.  Cumberbatch is terrifically charming in this challenging role: too much smugness would have made Strange unbearable, whereas too much phony sentimentality would have also made him equally insufferable.  To be sure, even the thespian heavyweight that is Cumberbatch fumbles with his character's vocal range throughout, but he brings such a smoothly commanding authority to the character that it almost doesn't matter.  Mixing a sardonic edge with a stone cold conviction suits the role well, and Cumberbatch sells that at every turn of this film. 

But, yes, DOCTOR STRANGE suffers from being too expositionally heavy handed at times (which plagues many origin films), and sometimes the rules and laws by which the sorcerers here abide by are almost as head-spinningly complex as the film's visual delights.  There are many scenes of characters explaining things in DOCTOR STRANGE, which sometimes grinds the film to a halt.  And even when the film delivers a stunningly envisioned action climax that makes some clever usages of Strange's temporal shifting powers, it lacks tension because the villains themselves lack dimension.  If you're willing to overlook these faults, DOCTOR STRANGE's overall infectiously inviting weirdness makes it feel more revitalizing and novel than it actual is.  The underlining storyline here of a downtrodden and fallen man rising to the occasion to find his inner heart as a hero is hardly anything new, but as a phantasmagoria of epically staged gravity, space, and time defying wizard mayhem, DOCTOR STRANGE is most assuredly in a whole league all by itself.  The fact that it doesn't look and feel like the previous MCU installments is a welcome blessing, especially at a very late stage when most franchises are bereft of ideas and originality.



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