Review: Doctor Strange

Review: Doctor Strange

Marvel Gets Stranger

         Just because summer is over does not mean the blockbusters have stopped. It has only been a whopping five months since Captain America: Civil War was released, but to make sure we did not forget about the superhero universe in that timespan, Marvel threw us another movie in the form of Doctor Strange.

In case my blatant sarcasm was not apparent, I feel as if the cinematic landscape has been so saturated with comic book movies that they have lost their novelty. Marvel used to release a film every couple of years, but now we have seen two within a few months, which could be potentially overwhelming to its audience.

Going into Doctor Strange, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill superhero flick that would be entertaining but ultimately forgettable. While the story falls victim to a number of clichés, I was absolutely blown away by the visual effects to the point where I was still envisioning some scenes days after seeing the film for the first time. I now understand all the fuss with LSD, although LSD is something you should not do. Seeing Doctor Strange, on the other hand, certainly is.

 

Magic Is The Best Medicine

         Dr. Stephen Strange is not your average surgeon. He has won a plethora of  countless awards and often employs risky surgical methods because, quite frankly, he knows more than everyone else. (Dr. Strange is pretty much House M.D. but with an even more unrealistic name.) However, all the success Strange has had operating on people’s heads has gone to his head, causing him to be overconfident and reckless, particularly when driving.

One rainy night while Strange is on the road, he receives a call about some potential patients. You want to commend him for using a hands-free phone, but then he has the files sent to him and examines them from a screen on his dashboard. If you thought people who text and drive are bad, try watching someone diagnose and drive. As expected, Strange winds up crashing his car and causing severe damage to his hands, which he relies on for his work. He spends a fortune trying to fix them and, when modern medicine fails, he travels to a mystical place called Kamar-Taj as a last resort. There, he meets the Ancient One, who shows the skeptical Strange the endless possibilities of magic. All he wants at first is to heal his hands, but the doctor inevitably gets tangled up in a world-threatening conflict and ultimately becomes a hero.

 

Trippy but Tropey

         The core plotline of Doctor Strange is predictably basic: he has obvious heroic traits, but his success has made him arrogant. Tragedy strikes, which causes him to learn some humility and puts him on the path to becoming a hero. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is also the plot of Iron Man and Thor. Despite being reminiscent of past Marvel movies, the formula works well for origin stories, and the movie has enough uniqueness to prevent it from feeling too repetitive. Hey, if it ain’t broke…

            Doctor Strange maintains a good equilibrium between humor, solemnity, and action, which has become a hallmark of Marvel films. Lately, some of their works have been leaning more towards comedy while others, like their various Netflix shows, have been more serious. Doctor Strange has the ideal balance, giving it a well-rounded narrative.

The film also builds a positive trend of solid performances; Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Stephen Strange, though it was hard for my ears to comprehend hearing the Sherlock actor speak with an American accent. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, a character comic book fans will recognize as Strange’s eventual nemesis. In this movie, Mordo does not defect to the dark side until the second post-credit scene. Ejiofor does a good job of portraying Mordo’s obstinacy with the rules of sorcery, which ultimately leads to his departure.

There was a great deal of controversy around Tilda Swinton being cast as the Ancient One due to the fact that the character is Asian in the source material. Though Swinton did a fine job, I am very much opposed to white-washing and would have preferred a more accurate casting job. Despite being all-knowing, the Ancient One is not without fault, which adds a nice element of complexity to the moral conflict between the two sides.

Rachel McAdams plays Christine Palmer, another surgeon who is suggested to have had a romance with Strange in the past. Unfortunately, Christine, like too many female characters, winds up being basically inconsequential. She has a few touching moments with Stephen in the beginning, then comes back for a bit when he needs medical assistance, but that’s all we see of her. I enjoyed the part of the film in which she saves Stephen and shows that medical science is still useful in a world of magic, but this was not enough to justify the overall poor writing of her character. Hopefully, she will have a more significant role to play in future installments.

            Alas, the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe still has the same problem as nearly all of its predecessors. The. Villain. Sucks. Aside from Loki (and maybe Ultron since his name is in the title), all of the bad guys have been instantly forgettable. This is a particular travesty because the incredibly talented Mads Mikkelsen played the part and still failed to make the character interesting. Moreover, he and his henchmen always have incredibly convenient timing, making them seem like boss battles in a video game as opposed to fleshed out characters.

But wait, there’s more! Doctor Strange actually has two big baddies: Kaecilius, played by Mikkelsen, and Dormammu, a being from the dark dimension who devours planets. Kaecilius wants to let the dark dimension bleed into Earth and argues that it will be beneficial because it will grant everyone eternal life, but the fact that it is called the dark dimension does not really help his case. Regardless, Dormammu gets pretty hyped up throughout the movie as the destroyer of worlds, but when he and Strange come face to giant face, he gets schooled. Long story short, Strange makes a time loop that gives him the power Tom Cruise had in Edge of Tomorrow—whenever he dies, he just comes back. Eventually, after Dormammu realizes he will have to deal with this annoying nemesis for all eternity, a bargain is struck. Kaecilius and his cohorts are sucked into the dark dimension and Dr. Strange basically saves the Earth with persistence. I guess you do not see that in the average superhero movie.

The majority of the film is enjoyable, but the special effects are what really make it shine. Any respectable blockbuster these days has to have good effects, but the visuals in this movie are in a league of their own.  Some effects made me feel like I was peering through a kaleidoscope, while others made the film seem like Inception on steroids. Much of Steve Ditko’s art from the source material is well adapted to the big screen. My only complaint is that the shaky camera coupled with the mind-bending CGI can make chase and fight scenes hard to follow, but it is still an astonishing spectacle.

 

Impact on the MCU

         While Doctor Strange is a very enjoyable solo film, it does tie into the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a pretty significant way. Prior to this, the presence of magic was not prominent, but now, it has been revealed that there is an entire society of sorcerers on Earth that dates back centuries. I could probably take up an entire page going back and forth with myself about whether or not it adds up that we have not seen evidence of such an organization in prior movies, but for the time being, I will say we just have to accept it. The excuse the writers provide is that the sorcerers are too busy making sure reality stays intact to interfere with puny human conflicts.

            Despite being practitioners of magic, the sorcerers bear a much closer resemblance to the Jedi from Star Wars than, say, the wizards of Harry Potter. Magic is portrayed as an ancient art, and the spells appear more rigid and less whimsical than one would expect. I believe this was the best way to introduce Dr. Strange to this world. Marvel, for the most part, has been rooted in science fiction-realism, occasionally flirting with the fantasy line. Involving Stephen Strange in the concept of alternate dimensions keeps him on that spectrum, but it is still more outlandish than anything we have seen from Marvel before.  This is saying something, considering that one of their characters is a talking raccoon. Regardless, part of the reason people go to the movies is to escape reality for a while. The ways Doctor Strange calls the concept of reality into question makes it the perfect getaway.

 

Final Score: 8/10

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