Monday, December 12, 2016

Film Review: Doctor Strange

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable 
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I am convinced that a significant portion the success of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe came down to the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark.  It was absolutely perfect casting.  And Marvel has put a great deal of effort into casting quality actors to lead their franchises.

But none have been as perfect as Robert Downey Jr.

Until Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctro Strange takes on another by-the-numbers super hero origin story.  Stephen Strange is brilliant (like Tony Stark), arrogant (like Tony Stark), sarcastic and quipy (like Tony Stark), rich (like Tony Stark), and has an ambigous relationship with a smart and beatiful woman (like Tony Stark).  And he undergoes a physical trauma that puts him on a path to heroism and self-discovery (like Tony Stark).

The only major difference here is that Doctor Strange deals with magic while Iron Man deals with science.

But this is not necessarily a criticism.  What the movie lacks in plot originality, it makes up for in charm, action, and visual spectacle.

Stephen Strange is a world-renowned surgeon whose hands are horribly damaged in a car accident.  After exhausting all treatments of Western medicine, he travels to the far East to seek healing from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).  At her enclave, she opens up his mind to the ways of sorcery.  He is also under the guidance of Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the keeper of the library Wong (Benedict Wong).  But looming over all of this is the Ancient One's fallen star pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to destroy the world by opening it to the entity Dormamu.

As mentioned before, the plot is not too terribly original.  But its execution is quite good.  Many people have pointed to the stunning visuals, and this does deserve note.  It isn't that the effects are groundbreaking.  The difference is that the use of the effects are weird and unique.  It feels at times like we are falling through a dream or a nightmare, but not in a way where logic has no meaning.  The Ancient One tells Strange that not everything has to make sense.  But things have to still hang by an internal logic or else the journey would be too difficult to follow.  Thankfully, Doctor Strange never goes that far off the deep end.  Even when the special effects take a turn to the bizarre, Doctor Strange still has a very clear through-line to follow.

Director Scott Derrickson also knows how to use the effects to their greatest advantage.  Most people will mention the reality-bending cityscapes.  But I think some of the best work is done with the cloak of levitation.  Rather than simply creating another piece of CGI costuming, the cloak has an almost sentient personality not unlike the magic carpet from Aladdin.  This ends up giving the movie some of its best comedy moments.

The thing that hold it together is Cumberbatch's performance as Strange.  He is arrogant and self-centered, which makes it difficult to like the character.  But Cumberbatch infuses him with enough charm and pathos that we come to overlook those qualities and root for him as he grows as a person.  There has been some controversy in the casting of Swinton, whose character in the comics is an Asian man.  But this does not feel like stunt casting.  Swinton feels quite other-worldly and alien in a way that the Ancient One should.  Ejiofor is not given much to work with, but he also brings in a good performance.  Mikkelsen is also sufficiently menacing as the one-note bad guy.  Wong as Wong does a pretty decent deadpan that provides a good portion of the movie's humor.

Rachel McAdams is totally wasted in her part as Dr. Christine Palmer.  She is shoe-horned into the narrative as the love interest and she does have an important part to play right before the third act, but then she completely disappears from the movie in any significant way.  She is never quite the damsel in distress, but I think what they do with her is worse.  Her character's only function is to advance Strange's story.  This would be less of an issue if they had not cast someone with real star power in the role.

The movie does raise some interesting questions about the nature of the relationship between science and mysticism.  I enjoy the fact that it points to the limited scope of science.  This isn't to say science is in any way bad, but that it only focuses on a small swatch of reality.  And it is actually Kaecilius who brings up some of the most intriguing ideas of the struggle all human beings have with time and death.  The movie's solution to this problem in the third act is creative and actually quite Christological.  That is one thing I have always appreciated about most super-hero films: the ideal of heroism they present tends to mirror in some way the sacrificial heroism of Christ.

This film does suffer from being a bit too forward-looking.  Kaecilius feels like less of an existential threat to our hero, because this movie sets up the one who will later be the arch-nemesis.  Too often these first films feel like prequels rather than standalones.  Doctor Strange does not fall that far, but it stands less on its own feet than it should.

Doctor Strange is a wild, fun ride with an engaging performance by Cumberbatch.  I would catch when you can.

4 out of 5 stars.

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