Doctor Strange review
Beyond time and death
Back in May, Marvel Studios took the box office by storm with 2016’s current top-earning film, Captain America: Civil War. Fast forward six months to the blockbuster giant offering another flick with the promise of adventure, humor, and broadening their cinematic universe in Doctor Strange this weekend. Despite a less aggressive ad campaign than Cap due to a lack of Avengers, and specifically the Leipzig sequence, the latest superhero to join the Marvel fold won’t break the billion-dollar benchmark. Fortunately, the film already made $86 million back last weekend when it opened in 33 foreign markets—a better pace than the entertainment entity’s last two new film properties in Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. Boasting a cast of Oscar-caliber English film and stage thespians, Doctor Strange continues Marvel’s hit parade of box office success and general critical acceptance. However, it also falls into the studio’s annoying and predictable problem of an underdeveloped and non-formidable antagonist combined with a formulaic, straight-forward origin tale. It just wouldn’t be a Marvel production if the story wasn’t all about the superhero. Luckily, monumental 3D and special effects make the film a must-see for spectacle aficionados.
Academy Award-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hobbit trilogy, “Sherlock”) stars as titular hero Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant, successful, yet selfish surgeon. When a life-threatening car accident takes away his ability to continue his medicinal practice, Strange spends his fortune travelling the world to restore his hands. In Kathmandu, he may have found the end of his journey in a mystical monastery whose top student recently went rogue in a search for more power. Cumberbatch makes the role entirely his own, creating a character ever so likeable and humorous enough to follow for two hours despite lacking…character. Rarely can an actor compel the viewer to root for a snob and the lead makes an easy job of it.
In the monastery, Strange meets a trio of influential teachers: Mordo, Wong, and the Ancient One. Academy Award-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Serenity) plays Mordo, a rigid, yet strong pupil of the Ancient One—the center of some minor casting controversy. One side calls the casting of Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) as whitewashing of a traditionally Nepalese character, and another faction points out that Marvel Comics’ often portrayed the character in a racially insensitive manner. Regardless, Swinton adds welcome humor and wisdom to a film transforming how one understands the metaphysical and mystical realms. The Ancient One may have the answers Strange seeks to restore his hands, and subsequently save more lives on the operating table, but he quickly catches on to the fact that he must commit to a reeducation of the body, mind, and soul if anything will improve his circumstances. Benedict Wong (“Marco Polo,” The Martian) ironically takes on the role of “Wong,” (playing the comic book sidekick, not himself) librarian and keeper of the monastery. Wong’s no-nonsense approach to everything creates the opportunity for humor from Cumberbatch.
In a market where 3D trends on the unpopular half, Doctor Strange arrives to remind viewers that 3D cuts of cinema classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Inception might have been mind-blowing. Simply put, the latest Marvel superhero flick becomes the new 3D standard, surpassing recent masterpieces like Gravity or Hugo in terms of spectacle in the third dimension. Sequences of Strange’s astral awakenings pop off the screen, and would make the lead look like a hand-flailing fool if they appeared anything short of psychedelic and mesmerizing.
Unfortunately, the antagonist quickly and obviously becomes the film’s lacking aspect. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) gets villain duty as the semi-formidable Kaecilius. Doctor Strange opens on Kaecilius’ betrayal of the Ancient One and resumes with the character well into the second act—only once he’s turned into an afterthought to Strange’s physical injuries. The film has more issues beyond its villain. Academy-Award nominee Rachel McAdams (Spotlight, Sherlock Holmes) and Michael Stuhlbarg (“Boardwalk Empire,” A Serious Man) get the short-end of the plot with their roles reduced to hospital employees who serve one of two purposes: either help Strange or endure his condescension. One wonders why Marvel and director Scott Derrickson failed to fill this role with Rosario Dawson’s “Night Nurse” character from the Netflix series “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” and “Luke Cage.”
In Doctor Strange, Marvel borrows a page from the D.C. playbook and produces a superhero blockbuster built on spectacle, with little regard for suspense. The powerful, cunning villain amounts to little as his minor screen presence affects the narrative’s predictability. Introducing viewers to the more mystical and trippy corners of the M.C.U. needed Oscar-talent from actors one can take seriously when using their open hand gestures as a means of combat. Plus, Tilda Swinton says “Sanctum Santorum” so effortlessly—who wouldn’t want to jump onboard a journey of the mind, body, and soul?