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Doctor Strange

Theatrical Review


Disney/Marvel; 115 minutes

Director: Scott Derrickson


Written by on October 31, 2016 

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With only a solitary passing mention of The Avengers, Doctor Strange is as stand-alone an adventure as we will get from Marvel — prior to a mid-credits sequence, at least. As explained by a master of the mystic arts, Wong (Benedict Wong), the Zen-exuding good guys here are meant to protect a mystical realm outside the physical one we’ve seen endangered thirteen times prior in the MCU. This higher, inherently more important calling pleads for more demanding visual effects, and it comes in psychedelic spades throughout director Scott Derrickson’s origin story. But despite all the aesthetic glee tied to infinite dimensions and symmetrically-collapsing architecture, the “origin” of Doctor Strange feels disappointingly rote and the “story” is little more than a series of groovy platitudes relayed to Benedict Cumberbatch as he jumps around the universe — or, more accurately, two-to-three primary locations.

Admittedly, such reflections on life, death, space, and time sound as fashionable as expected coming from the first actual superhero to be cast in a Marvel movie, Tilda Swinton, who plays the mysterious mystic mentor Ancient One with an icy swagger. She’s tasked with training Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange, a know-it-all neurosurgeon whose hands are in shambles after a life-altering car accident. After being fed up with the limits of western medicine, his quest for healing leads him to Nepal, where the Ancient One awaits, alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo, an advanced student who seems to double as the training facilities’ glorified bellhop. As Strange rebuilds both his body and mind, learning about the dimensions far beyond his current reality, the enemy comes into focus: a pissed-off former student of the Ancient One, the glitterific Kaecilius — proof it is, in fact, possible to waste Mads Mikkelsen.

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The Marvel character most akin to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Strange outwardly attempts to give a better life to those around, particularly when it comes to his profession, but, deep down, he’s a self-absorbed narcissist who believes he has full control of his life. While this sets up a potentially complex anti-hero, the script by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill is unfortunately burdened by Marvel’s unwavering commitment to likability, sanding off what could have been more intricate edges to Strange. Unlike Shane Black, who refreshingly appeared to have a little more leeway on Marvel’s leash, Derrickson & company seem at odds with making sure Strange’s arrogance ends up being endearing, ultimately coming up short on both sides. Instead of finding an intricately detailed, well thought-out story and introducing the character around that, Doctor Strange’s uninspired throughline rests solely on Cumberbatch’s shoulders. Unfortunately, his self-serious demeanor never completely gels with an unceasing supply of mostly unsuccessful wise-cracking quips, reaching a nadir in an over-extended Beyoncé-related gag.

What the superhero adventures lacks in memorable characters (don’t even get us started on Rachel McAdams’ barely formed semi-love interest) and a plot that fails to get more creative than Superhero Origin Story, Doctor Strange is, as a sensory experience, transportive if fleeting. Rather than initially opening up a small window to the many alternate dimensions, Strange’s first trip through space is a colorful, imaginative kinetic burst. When the Ancient One pushes him outside of his body and he jaunts through the universe, there’s no shortage of engaging imagery — particularly one bit where it looks as though he’s crawling inside his own eyes.

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When villainous forces come into play, these visuals are escalated to the level of M.C. Escher creating the Penrose stairs on acid. As New York City folds in on itself, the many visual effects companies certainly earned their wages as intricate details (e.g. moving cars and signposts) can be seen in the far distance, making for one of the few 3D movies where you won’t want to ask your local theater’s manager for a refund. This technical prowess isn’t just for major whiz-bang setpieces; Derrickson and cinematographer Ben Davis also employ an effective bit of foreshadowing when it comes to a piece of fruit, and I imagine it wouldn’t have quite the same effect in 2D.

This superhero adventure, like most of Marvel’s output, is well-paced enough with a few interesting ideas up its sleeve (including a refreshing climax featuring anti-destruction) that it should thus hold one’s attention. But for being devoid of a compelling story at its center, one walks away from Doctor Strange feeling as empty as the magic on display. If the highest praise bestowed on Marvel is their sense of fun — at least compared with the competition — it’s an aspect that registers as lacking in their most fantastical world yet. The strangest thing about their latest feature is that all of these characters come across utterly bored with their vocations.

Doctor Strange opens nationwide on Friday, November 4.


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