‘Doctor Strange’ Review: Marvel Embraces Stranger Things

'Doctor Strange'

Movie Rating:

4

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands exponentially, Kevin Feige and the gang have reached a point where they need to start throwing wrenches into their works. The movies are feeling increasingly familiar. The heroes are increasingly similar. It’s all getting a bit samey. Thankfully, here’s comes ‘Doctor Strange’, a movie that might not reinvent the Marvel formula, but at least serves up eye candy unlike anything else in superhero blockbusters right now.

The film is a wonder to behold on the big screen, even justifying the tacked-on 3D that has plagued many a Marvel romp. Even if this is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite Marvel picture, the fact that director Scott Derrickson has delivered something that feels fresh in the franchise is almost a minor miracle.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the new wise-cracking rogue. This time, he’s a super arrogant super surgeon – kind of like Tony Stark with a scalpel. Unfortunately, he ends up in a car accident that claims the dexterity in his famous hands. Desperate for a miracle cure, he travels the globe and eventually finds his way to the doorstep of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Along with sidekick Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a fairly thankless role), they open up the good doctor’s third eye to a wider world of magic never seen before. Along the way, Strange learns of an evil villain named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in CGI-enhanced eyeliner), who’s bent on world destruction. That means Strange will need to master his dimension-hopping magical powers quickly to put a stop to the baddie. Along the way, he may also win the heart of Rachel McAdams’ tiresome “girlfriend at home” who will hopefully have more to do in further chapters.

Basically, this is yet another superhero origin story the likes of which you have seen too many times before. You know, it’s one of those movies where a sarcastically hilarious nincompoop learns to be selfless by becoming more powerful than he ever imagined. It’s the same old thing, but with a new world of magic to add a little something to the equation.

Cumberbatch is as charismatic as expected, even if he needs a little time to settle into his American accent. Tilda Swinton is predictably fantastic in her Yoda-esque role, being all enigmatic and ass-kicking in the ways she does oh-so-well. Mikkelson has one of those typically thin Marvel villain roles to play, but he’s such a naturally imposing and immensely entertaining screen presence that he overcomes the limitations of the screenplay. As for Ejiofor and McAdams? They’re overqualified and underused, hopefully with larger roles in inevitable crossovers and sequels to justify their space in the MCU.

You get what you expect from ‘Doctor Strange’ on a certain level, including plenty of sardonic humor crammed in (apparently from an employed-at-the-last-minute Dan Harmon, no less). However, where the film really takes off is in the mysticism and spectacle. As is the Marvel way, directing duties fell into the affordable hands of an indie filmmaker. In this case, Scott Derrickson got the call after making a name for himself with horror movies like ‘Sinister’ and ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ that were far better than they had to be. Derrickson has always been an overtly spiritual filmmaker. He clearly takes the mysticism and gentle sprinkling of Eastern philosophy quite seriously here and even tosses in at least one cheeky Christian metaphor for good measure. In fact, this might be the one Marvel movie in which the comedy is somewhat unwelcome because the mythology is so intriguing and… well… trippy.

The selling point of ‘Doctor Strange’ and what makes it such a sight to behold on the big screen is the masterfully surreal magic imagery that Derrickson and an army of digital artists have delivered. The original ‘Doctor Strange’ comics were an outlet for artist Steve Ditko to dabble in the type of psychedelic imagery that was all the rage at the time and kept hippies returning to the Marvel racks. The way Derrickson applies that 1960s mind-bending to the digital age is jaw-dropping, with the ‘Inception’-style city folding shown off in the trailers only the beginning. The kaleidoscopic surrealism on display is the sort of thing that wasn’t even technically possible back in the ‘Iron Man’ days and could only be deployed in a blockbuster with these considerable resources. The film has a number of stunner sequences, almost impossible to describe and worth dabbling with in 3D for maximum impact.

If ‘Doctor Strange’ brings this sort of comic book imagery to every movie he graces with his cape, this guy is a welcome new focus in the MCU. That doesn’t mean the movie is a masterpiece. It’s still flawed in all the ways Marvel movies are. However, Derrickson has proven that there are still tricks left in this old war horse. That qualifies as a pleasant surprise bordering on rousing success. Bring on Phase Three.

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15 comments

  1. Here’s why I couldn’t stand it:

    1. This movie’s visual style wouldn’t exist without The Matrix and Inception. It doesn’t do anything that those movies already did.
    2. The story is nothing more than The Matrix with heavy doses of Edge of Tomorrow and The Green Lantern. Yes, I said it – The Green Lantern.
    3. The Stephen Strange character is nothing more than Tony Stark with medicine replacing technology.
    4. If you put any thought into the way the story is resolved, it makes absolutely no sense because the thing that resolves the issue broke five minutes before that, yet somehow can go through the broken record ending without breaking in similar fashion.

    The one thing is did like: seeing the Magic Carpet from Disney’s Aladdin finally land another role. I really like that guy.

    • Hey Luke, if you say ‘It doesn’t do anything that those movies already did’, aren’t you actually saying that ‘Doctor Strange’ is super original and wholly unique? 🙂

    • Chris B

      I feel like the Inception criticism is a bit unfair. The idea of the “folded cityscape” visuals were pioneered by Inception, but Doctor Strange took the ball and ran with it to a pretty impressive degree. I didn’t love the movie either but, give the filmakers at least a little bit of credit for the effects.

    • Oh the old, this wouldnt exist without this, argument huh? Just put that one to bed man, thats been used a billion times and every movie out there just cant exist without something that came before it…..this took those ideas and made them into its own thing, expanding on it and making it better and unique in its own world.

      As for the movie itself, I enjoyed it quite a bit, Marvel doesnt let me down, sure some arent quite as good as others but they are consistently GOOD to great movies, its amazing that this many movies later, I’m still all in on what Marvel brings me 🙂

      • Grant

        I couldn’t agree more Chaz. Each time I finish seeing a new Marvel movie I feel as though I had a decent amount of fun and enjoyment. In some cases like Winter Soldier I feel as though the sequel is superior to its predecessor. Indeed a rare thing for being this many movies into the franchise.

  2. Clark

    It was pretty formulaic, and Strange learns how to do magic way too fast, but the 3D visuals are amazing (the expanded scope scenes in IMAX are jaw dropping) and I had a lot of fun watching this. 7/10.

  3. Chris B

    Bit of a mixed bag TBH, the first act was fantastic, the second quite muddled and the third a bit of a return to form. Cumberbatch has undeniable charisma and screen presence, but the rules of the universe are muddled and not clearly laid out. Derrickson is an exciting filmaker and I’m rooting for him, hopefully his next outing will have a tighter and more concise screenplay.

  4. I’m sort of/kind of with Luke on this one…I enjoyed the movie, but I liked the non-action bits more than anything else. I knew absolutely nothing about this character going in, but he does seem very much like Tony Stark, except he has a hand problem instead of a heart problem.

    I think the bigger issue here is that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason re: what powers he has…I guess a lot of that is due to the magic/mystical aspect of them, but I can see why Dr. Strange isn’t considered a “top-tier” superhero.

    I DID like this better than Ant-man, though. 😉

  5. Chris B

    Also, maybe it’s just me but watching it I was thinking to myself “this is what it would be like if Christopher Nolan was hired to direct a Marvel movie”.

  6. cardpetree

    Saw this Friday night. It’s another quality Marvel flick. I’ve heard of Dr. Strange but I didn’t know anything about him. He’s a cool character. I do recommend seeing it in 3D. There’s two scenes after the movie is over if you didn’t already know. There’s a scene right after the credits begin and a scene at the end of the credits.

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