Doctor Strange and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Scott Derrickson
So on the one hand, I don’t’ really have any love for Doctor Strange as a character, and I’m still a bit salty that they didn’t cast Hugh Laurie in the role which I have been fan casting since the film first got announced all the way back in what, the beginning of phase two? On the other hand I’ve been a fan of C Robert Cargill as a film critic all the way back in the good ol’ days of Spill, so there is a part of me that wants this to succeed just because I like that ONE GUY. Then again it’s a Marvel movie, so it’s going to succeed anyway. LOOK! It’s complicated, alright!? I don’t put myself is some sort of cryogenic fridge between movies so my “precious objectivity” is working at peak efficiency! Actually, I should probably look into that and see if I can skip most of the next four years… ANYWAY! Does Doctor Strange deliver on all the weird fun that the trailers are promising, or is this another cookie cutter entry in the ever expanding Marvel canon? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is a world renounce Neurosurgeon with an ego the size of Hulk’s biceps and ends up smashing the hell out of his car while texting. Fortunately, the only part of his body that was harmed was his hands, but unfortunately he can’t be neurosurgeon if he can’t even pick up a pencil. Now instead of starting a diagnostics department and act super snarky to his subordinates, he instead blows his fortune trying to get his hands fixed to no avail while also pushing away his only real friend Christine (Rachel McAdams) due to his increasingly bitter outlook on life. His last resort is this temple in Kathmandu Nepal which healed someone else with even worse debilitating injuries and finds someone to take pity on him in the form of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who takes him to see THE ANCIENT ONE (Tilda Swinton). She blows the puny human’s mind away with what can only be described as a drug trip, but I think the implication is that she just gave him a small taste of what the universe has to offer, and she begrudgingly takes him on as a disciple despite his arrogance and penchant for being whiney. Of course, there might be ANOTHER reason why she wants at least one more meat shield training at their monastery. You see, the LAST prized pupil of The Ancient One was some jerk named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who’s now trying to do some bad stuff and will probably be coming for her bald ass soon enough, so the more bodies on hand to absorb energy blasts, the better. Will Stephen Strange find what he is looking for in the teachings of the ancient one? What is Kaecilius after and why is he so pissed about everything? Seriously, what the hell were they smoking when they were making this?
I’m way past the point where I have any interest in ranking the Marvel films so I’m not gonna tell you where this falls on the spectrum, but as far as… shall we say OUTSIDER Marvel films where this one film feels separate from the rest of the cinematic universe (Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, probably Captain Marvel), I thought this managed to do a great job of standing on its own and being an entertaining (and incredibly imaginative) film. Unfortunately, the parts it does share in common with the other Marvel films seems to be where this falters, and couple that with a bit of shaky filmmaking and the problematic representation, it’s clear that this movie has some serious flaws. Honestly, some of the parts in here feel a bit wasted on a Marvel film which is slowly turning into an overly homogenous (yet still entertaining) series, but I guess that’s more a glass is half empty versus half full argument as the best elements do make this movie more interesting than say Civil War was. There’s no doubt that a certain amount of compromise has to be made in order to make movies of this scope and I would hardly want to criticize a studio for spending almost two hundred million dollars on something to THEN want it to be profitable; it just feels like there MIGHT have been a better movie in here that wasn’t made due to lack of resources or talent, rather in service of a formula that has proven successful so far but is getting a bit stale at this point.
Okay, maybe that’s a BIT unfair of an assessment as the first act is basically a retelling of the first act of Iron Man, only the person brought low by his own hubris is not facing an external threat; rather an internal one… I think. The accident that takes his hands away is an external trauma, but the movie’s focus is more on the aftermath where his need to control everything and be the best at what he does is directly challenged in a way that he cannot deal with. Tony Stark goes through a similar arc what with his coming to terms with his role in the world as an arms manufacturer, but this one goes for a much more personal approach. It’s actually a pretty relatable story and makes him very compelling, especially when every time he takes a step forward towards seeking help, he hampers his own progress by trying to take control in some other way. When he runs out of doctors to treat him, he takes a chance at something less scientific, but is immediately skeptical. Once he’s shown how wrong he is yet again, he acquiesces for a bit before treating this new path the same way he did his life as a doctor, i.e. with arrogance. If I had a complaint about Strange’s character arc, I guess I never really felt the dramatic crescendo to really sell us on his change. He just kind of learns his lessons a little bit at a time throughout the movie, but never really has that defining moment where he realizes that he cannot be the same person he was before and has to give up EVERYTHING before getting what he truly needs. Maybe that’s the case for THIS character the same way it is for other Marvel heroes (*cough* Spider-Man *cough*) but by the end of the movie, he still seemed like a student to me rather than a master. Now they ARE a bit vague with just how powerful he is or how much influence he has at the end of the movie, so maybe Doctor Strange 2 will give us that moment, but it felt like he was given a happy ending without REALLY earning. MOSTLY earning it, sure; just not ALL the way there yet.
Now the highlight of this movie, as I’m sure wont’ be that much of a surprise to those who saw the trailers, is the visuals as this is the most stunning and creative film in the entire Marvel canon. It doesn’t have the scope of an Avengers film or Guardians of the Galaxy, and I did notice some rough CG whenever they had to replace an actor with an animation, but this is some of the most mind bending visuals since Inception. It can feel a TAD gimmicky at points when we’re running through a bunch of classic illusions and fractal art, but it’s easily the most interesting stuff we’ve gotten out of Marvel since the ending of Ant Man, and this is a whole movie of that! So many creative scenes where the characters have to run through areas that have fractured perspectives and weird geometry, on top of gravity changing direction at a moment’s whim; but what makes it all the more impressive is that it’s never confusing and always seems to follow a sense of logic even when the world is viewed through such a distorted lens.
Now what isn’t so great about the cinematography are the hand to hand fight scenes that not only have the CLOSE UPS! QUICK CUTS! SHAKY CAM! bullshit, but also have particle effects flying everyone which obscures the action even more. It’s a shame because the choreography here is top notch with characters defying gravity and using energy weapons, but because of how its shot, these cool elements only make it more confusing. Speaking of the fighting, the bad guy is once again SUPER weak which is the biggest carryover from the other Marvel films and is a huge disappointment. Mads Mikkelsen is supposedly a good actor (still need to watch Hannibal) but this is a role that does him no favors. He’s evil because reasons (stupid ones) and he’s working for the obviously evil entity of darkness or some bullshit, and it’s not the least bit compelling or interesting to watch him on screen. Hell, he’s not even that good at being a villain considering he gets his ass handed to him several times in here, so what the hell are we even worried about? Strange is a newbie at this shit, yet he’s taking down the greatest threat the  have ever faced? Get the hell out of here with this! Can Marvel PLEASE get their shit together when it comes to their villains!?
So now it’s time for the elephant in the room, and that’s the sidelining of Asian characters; most notably with The Ancient One played by Tilda Swinton. Now I thought she was great in the movie as this character and it MIGHT have worked if the rest of the representation here was on point, but she’s merely the most visible part of the problem. The movie wants to turn this Church of the Ancient One into more of a multi-cultural thing so that EVERYONE can feel invited, but it has the same problem that Last Airbender did when it was trying to do the same thing by STILL managing to put the white people front and center in a multi-cultural setting. The main character is white, the leader of the organization is white, and the bad guy is white. On top of that, the one prominent black person in here is the BEST FRIEND of the white guy, and the only Asian of note here is a one dimensional joke character named Wong (Benedict Wong) whose gimmick is that he’s super serious about everything. Oh, and naturally, despite him being much more experienced than our main character, he doesn’t even get a moment to shine and show how badass he is. He’s just kind of there in the finale and doesn’t contribute anything of significance to the film. Hell, he’s shown up by Strange at about the half-way point which takes away any potential he has to be a significant player in this story. Then again, the villains get shown up by Strange early on too, but that’s still no excuse for giving this guy nothing to do.
I am a huge fan of flawed masterpieces which is probably why Jupiter Ascending was one of my favorite films last year. There’s something fascinating about watching a movie that succeeds so well in many areas, but manages to drop the ball or do something unusual in the rest of it. Unfortunately the good aspects aren’t quite masterful and the bad aspects aren’t interestingly flawed, but it’s still a really fun film and one of the better blockbusters of the year. Of course, when your competition is Civil War, Batman v Superman, and the new Independence Day, that’s not the hardest bar to reach and there are places where this will need to improve once they get around to a sequel. That or DC can give them a run for their money if they do a Zatanna movie! What? I’m not allowed to dream!?
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