Doctor Strange (aka Marvel's Doctor Strange) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The Marvel Cinematic Universe adds sorcerers to its long list of fantasy elements. But this is no mere magic missile show, echoing the likes of Harry Potter. Marvel’s magic is a bit more clever and creative. The sorcerers of Doctor Strange use their abilities to shift gravity, open portals, turn walls into tapestries and skyscrapers into mazes. They’re a little tougher to combat than throwing a shield, blasting some energy or throwing a Hulk fist. A bit more tact is required in dealing with such threats, paving the way for the necessity of Doctor Strange.
The protagonist of Stephen Strange (yes, that’s his real name), played with ease by a smugly intelligent Benedict Cumberbatch, echoes the origins of Iron Man. He’s a cocky neurosurgeon that has become so confident in his life-saving abilities that he’s carved a comfortable lifestyle where he can drive fast cars and be selective of his clients. He’s very similar to Tony Stark, but slightly less smug about his popularity. But he’s forced to rethink his life when a car crash severely damages the nerves in his hand. Spending all his money to cure his hands, he finds himself headed to Nepal for a new solution to regaining the precision of his hands.
Where he seeks medicine, he discovers magic with the sagely Ancient One, portrayed in the MCU as a bald-headed Tilda Swinton. In the comics, the ancient one was a racist stereotype of an Asian sorcerer, so the trade up for a white woman comes across a little progressive than mere whitewashing. Director Scott Derrickson described the casting decision as an unwinnable situation, considering that the mere casting of any Asian would be seen as a controversial move for both the character and the region. A gamble with Tilda, but it pays off greatly with her likable charisma and spirit.
Reluctant to accept her theories on magical dimensions, Strange literally has the knowledge beaten into him when the Ancient One sends him on the ultimate trip, travelling through realities both astral and surreal. That’s all it takes for him to want to sign up for the Ancient One’s school of magic. Even with his hands damaged, Strange takes quite quickly to studying magic with the help of magic student Mordo and librarian Wang, as well as some sink-or-swim exercises. I suppose if he could accomplish brain surgery so easily, magic can’t be that much difficult.
What does end up being difficult is handling the threat of evil sorcerer Kaecilius, played with volcanic mascara by a stone-faced Mad Mikkelson. In what has become a troublesome habit of these Marvel movies, Kaecilius is not exactly a memorable villain, nor is his grand scheme all that unique. He desires eternal life and a god from another dimension can give it to him in exchange for the Earth, via a portal he must assemble. Been there before, seen that before and Doctor Strange offers little new in this arena.
Thankfully, the special effects on display makes Doctor Strange the most visually perfect of the MCU. Every sequence where sorcerers battle each other with magic is a visual feast for the eyes. Cities transform into bizarre displays of shifting perspectives, while cars and people still walk around an M.C. Escher in motion. The columns of buildings turn into meat grinders, buildings turn into tumbling blocks and walls become tapestries of revolving patterns. There’s even an extremely inventive use of magic where the destruction of a city is reversed while still satisfying the requirement for a grand showdown. It was the first time during these Marvel movies where I didn’t mind the abundance of detailed computer graphics as there was originality and creativity behind them.
The only downside is that Doctor Strange has so much cool stuff to show us that it forgets about the characters. They’re all likable enough to enjoy their arcs and their quips, but not nearly developed enough to appreciate the humility learned by Strange, the secretive nature of the Ancient One, the conflict of ethics for Mordo or the frustration of Kaecilius. So many events are skipped over, such as Strange’s training which lasts mere days, to keep the plot on schedule for more magic and more battles. All of their personality falls to the wayside to make way for the gorgeous special effects.
Despite this, I applaud the effort as these special effects do plenty to distract from the rather standard Marvel origins pattern. I’ve seen this story before, but I’ve never SEEN it so beautifully entrancing as Doctor Strange. Magic now exists in the MCU and it’s a most welcomed element that is sure to literally shift the Marvel universe.