Mark Reviews Movies

Doctor Strange


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Scott Derrickson

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 11/4/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 3, 2016

There's a decently sized list of things that set Doctor Strange, if not apart from, then at least slightly above the usual superhero fare. For one thing, it alters our expectations of a superhero's powers by placing them within the context of what can only be called a spiritual plane of existence. The film is yet another origin story, but it is one that offers a reason to care about the central character's journey that exceeds his need to foil a generic villain's inevitable plan to dominate/destroy the world. The performances find a sweet spot in which they take the material seriously enough, while still allowing for the screenplay's winks toward the audience.

Most important of all, though, the film possesses moments and sequences that return a sense of wonder to a genre that, while it hasn't quite reached that point yet, is in serious danger of growing stale. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts, director Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill seems fully aware of this impending stagnation. There are times when the film seems like a defiant statement from the filmmakers: If this stuff is eventually going to get old and tired, it's not going to happen on their watch.

The story follows Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an astronomically successful, self-aggrandizing, and arrogant neurosurgeon. The word "humble" isn't in his vocabulary, and it doesn't think it should be, either. He has a perfect record at the operating table, although part of that record has to do with the fact that he won't take any case that one might consider hopeless.

In a bit of tragic irony, Strange becomes a hopeless case himself after a disastrous car accident pulverizes his hands—broken bones, torn tendons, and extensive nerve damage. Wanting to recover so that he can return to his practice, Strange becomes bitter and hostile as surgery and physical therapy prove mostly useless, even pushing away Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an ex-girlfriend who seems to be the only person who can put up with his personality.

Rumors and evidence of a paralyzed man's (Benjamin Bratt) full recovery, though, send Strange searching for a miracle cure at a quaint monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) offers an answer in the form of sorcery, and even the skeptical man of science is convinced of the existence of magic after a display of her power. Strange's progression is not just about him gaining abilities to manipulate and go beyond the material realm, either. Here's a superhero with a self-contained arc (How refreshing is that among these increasingly intersectional Marvel movies?), which is focused more on him improving himself as a man—learning that only a decent, selfless person can be a hero.

Naturally, there's a villain, too. He's Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One who steals a powerful spell from a book in his teacher's private collection. His plan, of course, essentially involves the destruction of Earth (It's a little more complicated, but the general notion still stands), but what's intriguing about the character is not his scheme but his motivation.

He's driven by a sense of existential terror—the knowledge of his mortality, even after he has learned to manipulate the physical and astral planes of existence. Mikkelsen's performance brings a palpable sadness to what could be a routine role. The same goes for Swinton, whose Ancient One is an entity who has learned all there is to know about this universe—and the others that exist—and has come away from that knowledge with a playful sense of humor about it. There's a confrontation between the mentor and the villain that Swinton plays with an unexpected outpouring of empathy for the Ancient One's ex-student. Mirroring that shattered relationship is the one between the Ancient One and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), another master of magic who starts to see hypocrisy in his teacher.

In other words, it's a sturdy foundation: an origin story that cares more about who its hero is than what he can do, the outline of a generic plot that goes a bit deeper in exploring the reasons its characters arrive at familiar story beats, and a surprising amount of humor (A lot comes from the doctor's sentient cloak), which doesn't undermine the serious moments (The Ancient One pondering the relative nature of time in a moment that seems frozen within it is especially potent). Where the film really excels, though, is in how Derrickson, cinematographer Ben Davis, and the film's visual effects team fully embrace the possibilities of a world in which the physical and metaphysical laws of the universe are malleable.

There are some genuinely stupendous action sequences here. They may be routine in structure and function (chases or fights that move the basic plot forward), but there's nothing routine in the way they play out.

The gist is that, within a protective realm, sorcerers can manipulate matter without it affecting the real world. Gravity seems to shift, placing combatants upright on the sides of buildings, which begin to fold over on themselves. A single city block is mirrored seemingly infinite times and an equal number of directions as the heroes chase the villain and his cronies. In an amusing fight, Strange takes on one of Kaecillius' henchmen in the astral realm while his physical form is incapacitated in a hospital room.

There's no ignoring how Derrickson and his fellow screenwriters tackle the usual problem with the big climactic battle in a metropolis here. We learn that an accomplished sorcerer can manipulate time itself, so with a clever reversal of time and expectations, that means the final fight avoids cynical, senseless destruction by being restorative and surprisingly hopeful. Doctor Strange, then, works both as its own, unique superhero tale and as a knowing, optimistic commentary on the current state of the genre.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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