DOCTOR STRANGE (Dir. Scott Derrickson, 2016)
The beginning of DOCTOR STRANGE, involving a foot chase and fight over the sides of shifting, folding buildings (like INCEPTION times ten) inside the London skyline, is one of the most spectacular opening sequences of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series.
However, what follows all too soon settles into an overly familiar origin story formula.
In a New York operating room, we meet Benedict Cumberbatch as snarky neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange, whose arrogance around his fellow colleagues, played by Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg, makes him come off more than a little like Dr. Gregory House, especially since Brits Cumberbatch and Hugh Laurie’s American accents are extremely similar.
Strange gets in a near fatal automobile accident while texting in his Lamborghini *, and when he comes to he finds that his hands have been mangled and his career as a surgeon is over.
Strange’s physical therapist (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) tries to encourage him by telling him that one of his former patients made a full recovery from the same type of injuries, so our not yet hero seeks the man out. Benjamin Bratt as the former paraplegic points him to Kamar-Taj, a monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, to which Strange immediately travels.
There he meets sorcerer Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to the Ancient one, an ageless, bald, androgynous Tilda Swinton who silences Strange’s cynicism about their religion by thrusting him into outer space and a series of alternate dimensions which convinces him that he should shut up and train to be a sorcerer himself.
Meanwhile, one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) plots to destroy the sanctums that protect earth from other dimensions and conquer the world in the name of the powerfully evil Dormammu of the Dark Dimension.
So after the set-up, the second half of the film is all action with Doctor Strange, still developing his powers to bend time, make portals to different locations, and create fiery weapons by making shapes with his hands, fighting Kaecilius amid an ever shifting New York cityscape.
As incredible as so much of the imagery is – and with the backdrop of skyscrapers morphing into kaleidoscope clusters, it’s pretty incredible – the narrative follows a tediously predictable path, and too much of the dialogue is over expositionary mystical mumbo jumbo that left me scratching my head.
Cumberbatch is well cast in the role as he greatly resembles the character created by legendary comic book artist Steve Ditko, and it’s amusing to see him capture Strange’s snobbiness turning into enlightenment as he learns what appears to the film’s message: “It’s not all about you.”
Yet despite Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) doing some script doctoring, many of the good doctor’s one-liners fail to land. Of course, some of this is purposeful as in the moment when during his training, says to the Kamar-Taj librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) “people used to laugh at my jokes.” Wong replies, “did they work for you?”
It would’ve been nice if they gave McAdams more to do as she only seems to exist to aid Cumberbatch’s Strange as the clichéd love interest on the sidelines role. Swinton unsurprisingly steals her scenes, but this movie for sure doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (what Marvel movie does?).
As for the other supporting players, Ejiofor and Mikkelsen bring the necessary intensity, while Wong, Stuhlbarg, and Bratt have their brief but sweet moments.
DOCTOR STRANGE is far from a dud as I felt reasonably entertained, but I believe it’s going to fall in line with the lackluster THOR films in future appraising of the Marvel movie canon. It’s the 14th film in the MCU, the second after CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR in the series’ Phase Three, so, of course, there’s formula fatique (not that it’s the first time), but there are times when the ultra trippy effects help to transcend that.
Those effects, the immaculate CGI courtesy of Luma Pictures and Industrial Light & Magic, are what audiences will most take away. When Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay falters, the inventive, mind-blowing visuals sweep in to save it. The IMAX 3D screening I attended was stunning, so I’d recommend considering that format.
I bet hardcore Marvel fans will be pleased with this addition to the MCU – it’s another round of member berries with all the requisite elements - Stan Lee cameo, surprise Avengers member appearance, post credits stinger, etc. – in place. Casual fans of the films, who also aren’t that familiar with the comics, may get a bit bored during this incredible looking but mystically messy movie. And I speak from experience.
* I love that there’s this disclaimer in the end credits: “Driving when distracted can be hazardous, drive responsibly.”