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So here we go again. The origins of a superhero in movies have reached a point where the word saturation almost feels inadequate. Marvel is the forerunner in the genre, and they continue to push their own envelope in terms of visual effects and stocking their stable of characters. And while Doctor Strange starts with promise, it devolves into another seen-it-done-it action movie that is nothing if not overly-familiar.
We meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a supremely gifted and highly skilled neurosurgeon with an enormous god-complex who performs astonishing work in the operating room but butchers his relationships with people beyond. When he is involved in a horrifying car crash that all but renders his hands useless, he is faced with a life without his greatest ability. It crushes his spirit but he refuses to give up, though becomes increasingly antagonistic, eventually pushing away the last person who stands by him, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), his ex-lover and co-worker.
After months of failed surgeries, in desperation, he hears of a place called Kamar-Taj where there lives the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystic who teaches him to widen his vision beyond the physical world. In their first encounter, she separates him from his astral plane and sends him hurdling into a Kubrickian dreamscape of colors and lights, swirling dimensions and nightmarish images that shows him there is much more to the world he lives than he could possibly imagine. It is a humbling experience and it completely transforms him.
He begins to train, accelerating the process by five-fingering sacred books but he is imbued with a natural skill that makes him a quick learner. Ignoring the accepted path other students follow, he’s soon surpassing them. He learns too that Earth is protected from other dimensions by three sacred buildings called Sanctums, and that there is the threat of constant danger to our world. Now he must learn to accept his new role as a sorcerer, and as one of the protectors. It’s not easy.
Directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange is, at its best, a thrilling visual experience with some excellent effects that give the Marvel universe opportunity to go in a new direction away from just heroes in tight clothes punching each other, despite the propensity for fighting in any and all of these films. The sorcerer’s ability to conjure with swirling hands naturally makes for some exciting moments and is easily the more innovate and creative steps forward for the genre.
Unfortunately, the best the film seems able to do with it, after a spectacular introduction, is have these people fight. A lot. Like all superhero films, long, clunky, hard-to-follow battles take up large chunks of the running time, and while the weapons are new the outcomes are the same. More frustrating, but perhaps necessary, is how quickly Strange becomes a master of his spells, in mere minutes of screen time, he leaps from novice to pro, losing the opportunity for some of the more experimental moments that could have given the character a little more charm. There are other issues too, that strip away some of the authenticity of the start, even given the mystical foundation. For example, during one battle, Strange is wounded and needs Palmer to help him as his physical form begins to die. Appearing in his astral form, he pops up from his body like a free-floating apparition in front of her and she barely blinks an eye at the revelation. It feels like an lost opportunity and glossed over. Also, I’ll skip the troublesome continuing practice of the white man in a foreign land who becomes better than the masters who have long lived there.
Another problem is the bad guy, led by the usually gripping Mads Mikkelsen, who, like many in the first films of the Marvel franchise, is only meant to setup the larger villains hinted at for later. He plays Kaecilius, a former pupil of The Ancient One, and he’s all but inconsequential, a prop that certainly helps Strange to hone and harness his powers, but is lost in the lot of it, barely making any impression. So too is the great Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Karl Mordo, another student of The Ancient One who speaks eloquently but weightlessly.
Still, Cumberbatch is fun in the role, as is Swinton, and both provide some good moments of dialogue when there is chance for it. That can’t be said of McAdams though, who it appears the writers completely forgot was in the cast. The film is all visual effects, and while they are like nothing seen in a Marvel (or maybe any other) film before, they are a trap, as it is the film’s trick pony that is used with excess, especially in the “Mirror Dimension,” where battles can last atop the real dimension with no effect on the people or buildings within, even though everything is twisted and folded in absurd shapes à la Inception on steroids. Also, perhaps it’s just me, but the soundtrack sure sounded a lot like the music from the new Star Trek films.
So where does that leave us? We have a new player in the Marvel universe, and admittedly, this was a bit more fun than some of the more recent entries, and will open things up for more options in terms of weapons in battle, but there seems little promise of anything more creative than putting it all to the same use. A colorful, fast-paced, and well-acted superhero film, it does what’s expected and little else.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton
Genre: Superhero, action