John Allegretti ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Has it really been eight years since Marvel kicked off its cinematic universe with Iron Man? Many of Marvel’s past origin stories have tried to reach the height of Tony Stark’s, but Doctor Strange is the first one to succeed. Where films like Ant-Man failed, Strange is able to bring the Marvel universe back to its roots by introducing a new superhero in their own small, self-contained movie. It does an origin story without feeling stale and connects to the rest of the Marvel universe without becoming muddled.
Doctor Strange is helmed by Sinister director Scott Derrickson with a script by Jon Spaihts and critic-turned writer C. Robert Cargill. The movie follows Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an expert surgeon plagued by self-obsession and arrogance. After injuring his hands in a horrific car accident Strange seeks to repair them by any means necessary, and finds himself at the doorstep of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The Ancient One reveals to Strange that the universe is made up of many dimensions, and his hands can be cured by mastering the mystical arts that allow people to move between the dimensions.
The arc of Stephen Strange is very similar to Tony Stark’s from the first Iron Man: a rich and arrogant character learns empathy and humbleness after a brush with death. But the way Doctor Strange goes about doing this is very different from Iron Man. On the surface Strange sets itself apart from other Marvel origin stories through inventive visuals, but its storytelling is equally important. Doctor Strange’s main character arc is all about Hindu philosophy, which states that in order to achieve enlightenment a being must die and be born again thousands of times. I won’t spoil anything, but how the movie explores this concept is brilliant.
Doctor Strange is populated by a cast of characters ranging from interesting to underwhelming. Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job playing the titular character and lets none of his British accent slip through (much like last year’s Black Mass). Tilda Swinton also headlines the film as the Ancient One, a wise leader of a multicultural group of monks trained in the mystic arts. Benedict Wong stars as a master who guards books of forbidden knowledge, and has some hilarious interactions with Strange. Rachel McAdams also plays Christine Palmer, one of Strange’s co-workers who has to perform an emergency operation while Stephen fights mystical forces outside his body. Sadly, McAdams isn’t given much to do beyond her interactions with Cumberbatch, and it feels like she could have had an important role similar to Gwyneth Paltrow in the first Iron Man.
Another small disappointment is Mads Mikkelsen as the villain. Aside from Loki, all of Marvel’s villains have been overly-serious and never given the chance to chew scenery. The reason The Avengers and Civil War are held above other Marvel films is because of their interesting villains. The end credits stinger does set up a really great villain for the next Doctor Strange outing, but something tells me they would have been much better in this film. Also in the film is the Cloak of Levitation, a sentient piece of clothing that bonds with Strange and helps him fight off the bad guys. Cumberbatch’s performance and computer animators combine to make one of the funniest character relationships in years.
All of Strange’s action sequences are unique and mind-blowing. Each one does something new with altering reality and draws on recent sci-fi classics for inspiration. The films that Strange pays homage to engross each action sequence and despite the obvious reference it keeps you in the scene. If there’s any problem with the visuals, it’s how Strange chooses to block some of the VFX sequences. When reality around you is changing, it’s important to let the audience know where the characters are in the scene. But Strange has sequences done entirely through quick inserts rather than masters, making it very confusing for the audience to get a footing in the scene. But if the movie proves anything, it’s that the films of Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Sisters have cemented themselves in the common cinematic language.
Doctor Strange succeeds as a film by understanding the rewards of spectacle while knowing that storytelling is what wins an audience over. Some of the characters may not be fully developed, but all of them are likable and it’s interesting to see how they play into Strange’s next film. Marvel has tried to replicate the Iron Man origin story many times before, but Doctor Strange is the real deal. When a frustrated Strange asks the Ancient One how he can master the mystic arts she says, “How did you become a neurosurgeon?” Strange realizes what she’s asking and answers “Years of study and practice”. Marvel has assembled a group of filmmakers with the same experience and dedication as a practitioner of the mystical arts, and that is what makes Doctor Strange truly special.
Overall Grade: A-
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