Movie Review: Doctor Strange

  • Director: Scott Derrickson
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
  • Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, & C. Robert Cargill       
  • Based on Characters by: Steve Ditko
  • Music By: Michael Giacchino
  • Cinematography: Ben Davis
  • Running Time: 115 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 4, 2016 (USA)

Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts (From IMDb).

Review: The first Iron Man movie debuted in 2008, my junior year of high school. This film not only marked the stunning return of Robert Downey Jr as a cinematic powerhouse, but also ushered in the seemingly unstoppable dominance of Marvel inspired superhero movies. Since then, Marvel has successfully debuted thirteen blockbuster films and introduced a far reaching cinematic universe. Up until now, all these films follow a fairly predictable, but enjoyable, pattern: bad guy does something villainous, good guy rises to challenge, recruits some muscle bound friends, and beats the villain at the last minute after a knock-down blowout battle.  Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Spiderman, Captain America, the Hulk, and the Guardians of the Galaxy are all members of the same “team” and all have similar origin stories in that their powers come from science, not magic. Dr. Strange, meanwhile, puts a different spin on what it means to be a “superhero”.

The Marvel extended universe consists of a “science” and a “magic” side. For example, Iron Man and Ant-man represent the hard science-fiction side of the universe. Tony Stark gains his “super powers/suit” through his own brilliance and technical knowledge. Similarly to Iron Man, Ant-man’s power originates from a man-made suit. Thor admits that Asgardian “magic” is merely highly advanced scientific principles. Captain America and the Hulk gain super strength through serums developed in scientific research labs. On the other side of this universe dwells the traditional “fantasy” driven narratives. Marvel has published multiple comics putting new spins on classic mythological characters like Hercules, Medusa, King Arthur, The Titans, Ares, and so on. Doctor Strange serves as the common factor that brings these two side together. Stephen Strange represents science due to his training as a surgeon and the magic/fantasy side because of his magical training. Future movies promise to bring these two sides of the universe together more often.

 Dr. Stephen Strange is a world-renowned neurosurgeon and solidified his reputation by taking on hopeless cases that no other doctor would attempt, and succeeding. Strange’s motivation for fixing irreparable spines and removing inoperable brain tumors  is rooted in a desire to court fame and fortune. At least he has the talent to back up his braggadocio. One evening, while speeding along a precipitous roadway, Strange’s sports car collided with another car and rolled down the cliff; the fall mutilated his hands. Millions of dollars later, Dr. Strange struggles to figure out who he is now that his hands do not function due to extreme nerve damage.

After hearing about one man’s miraculous recovery, Strange embarks on a soul searching journey to explore the ultimate alternative medicine: magic.  Kamar-Taj (a made up city) in Nepal is a strange place known for its magical community. Led by the Ancient One, and mentored by fellow sorcerer Baron Mordo, Strange learns the art of the ancient magic concealed behind closed doors.  When an old enemy of the Ancient One appears, Strange has to fight the hardest advisory he has ever known in order to survive in this new world, himself.  

While there is a traditional antagonist, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, I contend that the actual villain is Dr. Strange’s pride. The narrative follows the standard Marvel plot, but adds another dimension with the internal struggle Strange goes through where his scientific mind battles with the wonders his eyes perceive. A majority of the narrative revolves around this struggle and Strange figuring out what kind of man he wishes to become now that he lacks the ability to perform high risk surgery. Until he mastered this feeling of loss and uncertainty, Strange struggled to find his place in a new world. None of his confrontations with the villain go his away until he learns to trust in his new abilities. Based on this, I believe this inner struggle is the main antagonist and Mikkelsen’s character is the secondary villain.

Doctor Strange is an origin story and, as such, mainly focuses on him. That means there is not a lot of narrative time to flesh out the supporting characters of Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and Wong (Benedict Wong). However, they all serve as excellent foils for Strange’s abrasive personality. Hopefully they will receive stronger arcs in later films.   While Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is a relatively underdeveloped villain, Mikkelsen is an ominous presence. This presence, along with some groovy eye makeup, makes Kaecilius a compelling villain. Unlike some of the other Marvel films, Kaecilius’ actions arise from a sincere motivation for deeper life meaning and not some misguided notion about ruling the world as a benevolent despot.

Benedict Cumberbatch built his career portraying slightly kooky characters, and Dr. Strange is no different. Cumberbatch manages to perfectly capture the arrogance and fear battling for dominance within the mind of Strange. It is not easy to make an unlikable character come across as sympathetic, but Cumberbatch manages that feat. Dr. Strange is a man who cockily refused to become an emergency room surgeon because he did not want to save one life at a time, instead he focused on revolutionizing neurosurgery. Then his horrific accident sees him relying on those overworked emergency room surgeons to save his life. After being stripped of all pride and forced to face a power greater than himself, Dr Strange attempts to find a new way to revolutionize the world outside of neuroscience.  

Tilda Swinton portrays the Ancient One, the only other character given a strong development arc. The Ancient One instructs Strange in the magical arts and how to “expand” his mind. The screenwriters gave Swinton an effective blend of exposition and grounded drama that help to anchor the magical elements into a believable reality.  Swinton is excellent in the part and imbues her character with a lot of intricate levels: insightful, tormented, talented, and inspiring, but still human. Few actors have the ability to give a character depth using nothing more than body movements and knowing looks. In this particular area, Swinton excels and manages to come across as both infinitely wise and tormented with nothing more than a few well timed movements and facial expressions. And she played quite well off of Cumberbatch; which is good since they share a lot of screen time together and the movie would have fallen flat if they did not have onscreen chemistry.

Overall, while this is a Marvel superhero film, Dr Strange is an excellent classic magician movie. There is no politically motivated moral or underlying fable, it is just a straight up good guy versus bad guy action film tinged with a magical element. Due to the excellent casting, screenwriting, and directing, the film is an enjoyable piece of escapism. And you do not need to have seen the previous Marvel films in order to understand this one, there is barely any mention of the other characters or storylines. If you are looking for an excellent science fantasy adventure, Doctor Strange is worth watching.

Though I am left with one burning question, would Edna Mode from The Incredibles approve of Dr. Strange’s cape?

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