If we allow ourselves the opportunity, we can easily be wowed, and transported to a time where childlike wonder made us believe in the infinite, that we were only bound by the limits of our imagination. This, oddly enough, is what Marvel’s latest cinematic offering, Doctor Strange is all about. Growing up, growing colder, more cynical, allowing our belief in fantasy to be chipped away at. With the desire for more of the material, less of the ethereal, magic is one of the first things to fall by the wayside. Thankfully, a sorcerer or two may be just what we need to rekindle that spark.
Marvel Studios has spent the last 9 years working mostly within the confines of the real or at least a grounded variation of such, with occasional diversions and side trips (see: the Thor series & Guardians of the Galaxy) into the more fantastical sides of their comic universe. Now, with Doctor Strange, they attempt to bridge that gap, with a film mostly set on earth, by focusing 80% on the mystic arts, and come out all the better for it.
Ostensibly, Doctor Strange is an origin story, and that is more than fine. We aren’t dealing with your regular comic character that the average audience member is familiar with, after all. Most people may have heard of Stephen Strange, though few would be able to easily pick him out of a crowd. A story like this helps make the character important, garner more fans and allow him the breathing room for an even more sprawling affair the next go-round. Not bad for a film that dabbles freely in the weird, just not too weird, as tickets still have to be sold. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, sounding a bit like Dr. House at times) is one of the best surgeons on the planet, and he will be the first to tell you this. In the classic Marvel mold, he is a brilliant and accomplished egoist (think Tony Stark, without the boyish charm, turned up to 25), entirely consumed by his work. After a tragic car accident leaves him with irreparable nerve damage, and limited usage of his hands, Strange is consumed by the desire to fix himself, regardless the cost, and ends up in Kathmandu, where it is said that a revolutionary healing method may exist.
The only thing that holds this first chapter in the Doctor Strange saga back, is a vague feeling of deja vu. At times the film feels very “paint by numbers” borrowing liberally from different superhero films in the past 15 years. What sets it apart is its previously mentioned willingness to get a little weird and goofy. It’s a credit to director Scott Derrickson, as well as screenwriters John Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, that a fair amount of new life has been breathed into the proceedings, to alleviate most of the pitfalls. It also helps that they have assembled a cast more than capable of making what’s on display rather weighty.
At the same time these characters themselves feel like roads we’re traveled down before, yet with a twinge of evolution peeking out underneath. Nowhere is this more apparent that with Kaecilius and Mordo. Both former and current pupils of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, proving her poise, grace and wonder are easily translatable to the Marvel machine) have much more going on under the surface that will simply be hand-waved away as more of the same. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is a more wayward and evil version of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan the Accuser, a menacing lackey, seduced by the promise of a Big Bad. Any faults he may show as the de facto villain of the feature are readily addressed by the film. This is also extended to Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who can be best described at Sinestro from The Green Lantern, with gravitas and conviction. It’s a testament to the film that the storyline is, on an ever widening scale, all about the seduction of magic and mortality. Each character has their own view and logical reasoning for the path they are forging. How they decide to balance the scales is what starts to set it apart, as the mystical, the mundane, mankind, and the multiverse (really) set to collide. The Ancient One knows her place in a fighting darkness, raising a force for the front lines of defense, and the sacrifice one must make to see it all through. Kaecilius wants to help cleanse the world of its perceived ugliness and hand over the reigns to a powerful unseen force, with the promise of eternal life. Mordo is faced with a crisis of faith, that all he has spent his life protecting and believing in may not have such set, concise tenets. Ejiofor reminds the audience that a great actor, given even the smallest of scenes to work with, can create a compelling character out of nuance and body language. Strange is, of course, the outsider, who is challenged with rejecting science, accepting the mystical and finding that his drive to be the best may actually be humanity’s greatest hope. That Mordo and Strange trade places as events unfold, is no mistake, as they will become the fiercest of adversaries as the slate of films wears on, in what will hopefully be a showdown for the ages.
Stephen Strange, sorry, Dr. Stephen Strange (as he would prefer you address him), is another beast all together. Cumberbatch seems like he wants to give the role his all, and for the most part is successful, albeit stuck to the ridged structure of the start of a new film series. In the comics Strange finds himself hovering between number two or three on the “most arrogant” list, in a revolving door of characters. Here though, he only sees moments piercing the veil. We end up being “told” more often than not how selfish he is, when it never matches up as a true hindrance. This isn’t directly the fault of the actor, as he tries to imbue the character with enough pathos and conviction. As the pacing moves into a higher gear in the second half, Cumberbatch is given room to grow and take on the mantle of a master sorcerer. If the studio eventually decides to shed the shackles of the “origin story” plotting, audiences will get a hero they can cheer for and accept from moment one. Until then, good enough isn’t bad at all.
It would seem foolish to go this far without lauding the effects department, as Doctor Strange may be one of, if not the most visually striking film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (it goes toe to toe with Guardians of the Galaxy many times). Folding cityscapes, rotating columns, mirror realms, quick trips through other dimensions, and more than one trip to somewhere that looks ripped from a surrealist nightmare, Doctor Strange is filled with kind of vibrancy and propulsion most comic-book films lack. Colors pop and bleed across the screen in the biggest of set pieces. Action set pieces combine VFX, hand to hand combat, and magic temporal manipulation, and gain a boost from fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio (Haywire, John Wick, Bourne Ultimatum, The Wolverine). A few questionable CGI moments are peppered throughout, but when someone bends or breaks the rules of physics and reality you’re more than willing to suspend your disbelief a little further than normal. All of this though (outside of a protracted battle during the third act in Hong Kong) exists on a relatively smaller scale, while the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. While the past Avengers films, and most recently Captain America: Civil War, saw destruction running rampant across the globe, the sorcerers and masters here try to contain the insanity, putting the lives of bystanders at the forefront. It’s a small and slight detail, but shows the growth of a studio slowly tweaking aspects of other features.
Since this is a Marvel affair, there are a few missteps along the way, with two that stand out above the rest. First is Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Strange’s former girlfriend and co-worker. She finds herself unfortunately in the position of most flames throughout the MCU, relegated to a thankless role of support, without much development. If ever there was an area the Marvel films needed to step up their game, this would be it. Second, and this is one of the few times this can be directly be referenced, but Michael Giacchino’s score is sadly lacking at times. The best way to describe it would be that he seems to be slipping into John Williams score overload. Doctor Strange‘s theme is really just a mix of music from the Avengers series, mixed with his own theme from the Star Trek reboot. Sonically there is nothing wrong with this, as it comes off more distracting than overtly annoying. In a movie as strong as this, minor quibbles tend to stick out more than one would probably notice.
Doctor Strange is a really really solid film that’s just shy of being great. Again, what seems like a chance to make excuses for this movie is really singing its praises. Marvel has a small scale, large stakes film on its hand that is a joyous, rollicking good time. At entry fourteen in an ever expanding universe, this is no minor feat. Taking a character like Stephen Strange and turning him into a household name is fantastic, and we are all the more lucky to be graced with it.