Although it operates within the same universe, Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange is not your typical Marvel film. Not that there is anything wrong with typical Marvel films-they have certainly exploited a winning formula, which they continue to work for all its worth-but Doctor Strange takes its place alongside other diversions from the norm like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Deadpool (2016), and the forthcoming Logan (2016) by keeping enough of what audiences clearly crave while also throwing in a few twists that make it feel, if not entirely unique, at least different. And at this point, with so many Marvel (and its competition, DC) superhero films already out there and so many more in the pipeline, I'm always up for different.
At its core, though, Doctor Strange builds on the very conventional formula of the "origin story," showing us how a wealthy, egocentric New York neurosurgeon named Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes the powerful sorcerer Doctor Strange (it is convenient that his given name works so nicely for his new, magical identity). When we first meet him, Strange is a shallow, materialistic, and selfish man whose brilliance in the operating room is belied by his pomposity and willingness to humiliate others for his own gain. His only friend in the world appears to be Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an emergency room doctor who was once his girlfriend and who, for reasons that remain somewhat elusive, continues to treat him with decency and respect even though he offers little in return. While driving his extremely expensive foreign sportscar to a dinner in his honor, Strange drives off the road and crashes, resulting in the complete destruction of his hands. With the instruments of his brilliant mind rendered almost useless, he sees no purpose in life except doing anything he can to restore them.
After depleting the entirety of his fortune on surgeries and research, he stumbles upon a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who defied all the odds by recovering from a severed spine and walking again. He learns that Pangborn discovered a mystical group in Nepal that was able to help him recover in a way that medical science told him he could not. With no other options, Strange travels to Nepal and meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her protges, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), who he at first takes as garden-variety New Age kooks until the Ancient One demonstrates her power, separating his spirit from his body and showing him that there is an entire world of magic and sorcery into which he can tap. "Teach me," is all Strange can say after the experience, and he begins training intently in the mystical arts, transforming himself not just from a man of science into a sorcerer, but from a man of enormous ego and selfishness into one who recognizes his connection with others and the error of his ways. As much as Doctor Strange is a conventional origin story, it is also a rather moving depiction of a man's genuine spiritual growth, so that his eventual superheroics are not just exercises in fantastical power, but a culminating, selfless engagement with hard-fought and earned skills.
Derrickson, who has spent most of his career making smart, spiritually engaging horror films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2006), Sinister (2012), and Deliver Us From Evil (2014), was an inspired choice to helm the film, as he brings a sense of depth to Strange's development; he isn't just becoming a magical superhero who can someday ally himself with the Avengers, but rather a man of deeper and more profound conscience whose abilities are an extension of his new connection with the world outside himself. Cumberbatch, having made his name playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective on the BBC's Sherlock series, excels at playing brilliant, conflicted characters, whether it be the fabled villain Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) or the tormented computer scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014), so it's no big surprise that he feels tailor-made for the film's title role. He has a great time played Strange's hyper-egotism in the film's opening third, but he is just as good at conveying the depths to which he sinks after his hands are crushed and the flourishing of his spirit once he begins to learn his new powers.
Of course, the interpersonal journal at the heart of Doctor Strange is deeply embedded in a fantastic display of special effects that at various points turn ordinary cityscapes into a shifting, churning, kaleidoscopic funhouse-mirror within which the action sequences are set. There is something delightfully trippy about watching buildings turn and fold into themselves and become like M.C. Escher sketches come to life while various magical beings duke it out. The chief villain is Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a turncoat mystic who was once in league with the Ancient One but now has plans for global domination that must be thwarted. This involves massive attacks on three important cities-New York, London, and Hong Kong-and one of the film's neatest tricks is the way it deploys the malleability of time to subvert the typical-to-the-point-of-exhausting-clich climax in superhero films that finds a major city being destroyed. That happens here, but it happens before the heroes arrive, thus denying the audience the visceral, highly questionable pleasure of watching mega-destruction and instead does the exact opposite by rewinding time and allowing the destroyed city to be put back together. It keeps all the gee-whiz CGI intact, but to entirely different ends, which is also true of the film's best scenes that find Doctor Strange battling another mystic as out-of-body spirits while Christine Palmer tries desperately to save Strange's mortal body. There is something darkly humorous about the whole enterprise, and Derrickson consistently finds the right balance between humor and pathos and spectacle.
Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Marvel Studios
Overall Rating: (3)
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