Movie: Doctor Strange
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swanton, Chiwetel Ejiofor
The latest addition to Marvel’s cinematic juggernaut is a fun and spine tingling homage to the company's resident Sorcerer Supreme, casting a dazzling spell through solid acting and a surprising degree of humor and intelligence that, despite its flaws, is sure to enchant superhero fans both old and new.
I’ll be honest: this was the one hero movie this year besides Deadpool that I was really looking forward to. Marvel’s Doctor Strange has always been a personal favorite of mine, a singular studious intellectual in a comic environment so often steeped in muscle-bound machismo and fisticuffs showdowns. And when I first saw the trailer and the star-studded cast, I can’t say I wasn’t stoked. Too often I slouch into theaters with my expectations decidedly low, but this time, I threw caution to the wind, confident that my good faith would be rewarded. And it was, for while Doctor Strange has more than a few foibles to contend with and has been at the center of a bit of controversy thanks to its very specific changes to the mythos, it stands out even in the MCU for its pitch-perfect humor and the surprising depth with which it treats its subject - leaving you to ponder mystical allegories on faith long after the credits close.
Our story begins in what’s now become a staple of Hollywood films - the in medias res, where an unlucky librarian gets unceremoniously offed by rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his band of magical zealots, before they encounter the eminent Ancient One, played by the stately Tilda Swanton. What follows is a not-so-subtle display of the film’s dizzying special effects masquerading as a sorcerer showdown, before eventually cutting to the star of the show: Cumberbatch as the brilliant Stephen Strange, a neurosurgical phenom as arrogant as he is talented, living the self-absorbed and self-adulating lifestyle of a scientific rock star. His house of cards come tumbling down when a bit of on road recklessness leads to a tragic accident, maiming his hands and his career. Thrown into an existential free fall from which even ex-girlfriend and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) couldn’t shake him, he exhausts both his assets and the patience of everyone around him, chasing one dead end solution after another, before an unlikely source sends him halfway around the world to Kamar-Taj, a tossed salad of 1960s mythologized “Asian” culture tucked away in the Himalayas. He stumbles into Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), a mysterious stranger who leads him to the inner sanctum of the Ancient One. But little does he realize that his personal quest for healing has roped him into an endless cycle of interdimensional conflicts, wherein lies the fate of the entire world.
By this point, dedicated fans and casual moviegoers alike have come to expect a lot from the MCU - namely, smart writing, high-octane action, and strong pacing with likable characters. And Doctor Strange is no exception, gifted with a solid cast and loads of humor. Cumberbatch is, as expected, a great choice for Strange, grasping the nuances of the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement, but never pushing him past the point of likability. Actors tend to slap down the flaws of a narcissist in too clumsy a manner, but Cumberbatch went for the slow burn instead, starting off as a committed if justifiably proud surgeon, before the accident lifts the veil to reveal just how wounded he is on the inside - and he pulls it off without a hitch.
But honestly, we shouldn't dwell too much on the characters - they aren't the main source of the movie’s strength, which lies largely in the smart themes and sharp humor permeating the whole thing. For one, Doctor Strange refreshingly doesn’t take itself too seriously. Whether it’s our main boy's muddled attempts to interact with the Sanctum’s impassive Beyonce-loving librarian (Benedict Wong) or his wrestling with an overly affectionate cape that’s chosen him to be its master, most of the scenes - even the serious ones - are graced with a delightful wit that never feels forced or out of place. Compared to the DC Extended Universe’s mournful and self-important snooze fests, or even the mythos baggage Marvel properties have started to accumulate with some of its long runners, Strange is a nice breath of fresh air.
But the truly amazing thing is how Derrickson managed to combine this humor with a surprisingly intelligent nod towards faith and moral complexity. It's no Stoic discourse, to be sure, and the jury's still on how much of it was actually intended; however, the largely PC-influenced changes the directing team made from the source opened the door to some pretty relevant topics in this day and age. Stephen Strange may be an insufferable tool in many ways, but he’s mentally flexible and quite comfortable grappling with moral complexity, especially if it helps the greater good. Most other characters are defined by how they respond to this basic religio-ethical tension. Mordo starts off as the stereotypical magical guide, but his fanatical commitment to the Ancient One and the ways of the sorcerer reveals a dangerously narrow view of the world. Kaecilius blames his start of darkness (through an unbelievably verbose chunk of Villain Exposition) on a revelation tantamount to a young religious neophyte discovering church hypocrisy for the very first time. The Ancient One herself is a bit of a cypher, shedding the straight-forward “old Asian master” persona in the source material for a more nuanced and conflicted character - one whose own dark secrets rest at the heart of the plot.
And in the end, subsuming characterization for the sake of the narrative was an excellent decision. Aside from Strange and the hilarious straight man antics of Benedict Wong, the characters stand out more by their service to the plot than by their ability to drive it. Again, this is in sharp contrast to the current trend in Avengers centered story lines, so wrapped around the iconic portrayals of a few key characters that it’s sometimes hard to tease out the plot underneath. And it works; while I normally warn against sacrificing a strong character for a plot utility, that’s only because it so rarely gets done right. But Derrickson and co. held it together, and the results speak for themselves.
Not everything is all spells and spectacle in Doctor Strange’s magic garden, of course. Christine Palmer is entirely superfluous, and a tremendous waste of a good actress. The character herself isn’t bad, but she accomplishes little to nothing by her presence besides being a prop for Strange’s existence, and somehow manages to embody the worst of what Ben Child, writing for The Guardian, calls Marvel’s “girlfriend problem” - without even being a love interest in the traditional sense. Beyond that, the special effects were a big “ho-hum,” running the gamut from wildly gaudy screen-bending effects to cheap magical visuals resembling some junior artist’s first-time fumble through Blender. Also, although the beginning up to his arrival at Kamar-Taj is perfectly paced, thereafter the film gets wonky with our sense of time, glossing over parts of his training that could have been extended to better effect, or letting large swaths of the cast disappear in many fights scenes like this was a Mortal Kombat movie.
But besides that, and a little inconsistency on how badly damaged Strange’s hands are supposed to be, I was quite pleased with this rendition of the "other" good Doctor. On most levels, it’s the nicely balanced blend of action, story, and likable characters that define the MCU so well, and places it leagues above DC’s paltry offerings so far. Most of its problems are not show stoppers by any stretch, and the generous amounts of humor and thought more than make up for them.