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Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016)

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Premise: A neurosurgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) is severely injured in a car accident. In an effort to find a miracle cure he seeks out The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystic who reveals another plane of existence and recruits the doctor to defend Earth from other-dimensional threats.

What Works: As an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is an amalgamation of the wackiness of Guardians of the Galaxy and the more traditional superhero stories of The Avengers films. This picture adheres to the Marvel template but it has a lot of humor and unusual visuals and ideas that we wouldn’t normally expect from a superhero movie. Doctor Strange was directed by Scott Derrickson who has a mixed track record, having made a few interesting films (Sinister and Hellraiser: Inferno) and some really bad ones (Deliver Us From Evil and 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still). But whatever his faults as a filmmaker, Derrickson has proven to be a filmmaker who is interested in ideas and his movies have consistently tried to do something philosophically interesting. While Doctor Strange isn’t exactly 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a bit smarter than the average Hollywood action picture. The film has a spiritual theme in which a self-absorbed and atheistic character loses his way and eventually comes to realize that there is a world beyond the material one. He grasps the implications of that knowledge and eventually takes responsibility for it. The title role of Doctor Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The character fits the kind of intelligent and arrogant role Cumberbatch is usually cast in. However, there is a lot of humor in the movie and much of it comes at the expense of Doctor Strange as he goes from a newbie to an adept. Cumberbatch isn’t afraid to make himself look ridiculous. That humanizes the character and makes him and the story accessible to the audience. The philosophical and metaphysical aspects of Doctor Strange also allow the movie to do some interesting things cinematically. The picture has a few ambitious images and it finds ways of visualizing complex ideas in a way that is accessible to a mainstream audience. But the filmmakers don’t forget that they are making a superhero movie and there’s plenty of action set pieces that will appease the core viewership.

What Doesn’t: It’s been eight years since Iron Man, the movie that started the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the studio’s origin story is getting creaky. Doctor Strange adheres to the Marvel superhero template and the mechanics of this narrative are getting rusty. Just as in Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man, Doctor Strange is the story of an arrogant and selfish character whose stupidity causes him to lose favor. He is humbled and learns to use his talents for the greater good, culminating in a gesture of self-sacrifice. Doctor Strange also incorporates that other cliché of the contemporary superhero movie: the atmospheric invasion seen in everything from The Avengers to Man of Steel to Green Lantern to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. And that leads to another problem of Doctor Strange and many superhero films in general – the villain is not interesting. The heavy of Doctor Strange is Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen. Like other comic book villains, he is the leader of a fascistic death cult but Kaecilius has none of the swagger of The Avengers’ Loki (Tom Hiddleston) or the psychological complexity of X-Men’s Magneto (Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellen). In fact, with his eyes smeared in purple mascara Kaecilius looks less like a supervillain and more like a member of Jem and the Holograms. Aside from other superhero movies, the other picture clearly influential on Doctor Strange is Inception. Several of the gravity shifting set pieces are right out of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film.

Bottom Line: Doctor Strange is a familiar story but it is told well and with a great deal of humor. While it adheres to the superhero template, this is certainly one of the better entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in the comic book genre. 

Episode: #622 (November 20, 2016)