Doctor Strange: a movie review

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You owe it to yourself to get off the hill and go see Doctor Strange on the big screen. While there are moments where it gets bogged down by the genre trappings of superhero movies, in the end its fantastical elements, knockout visual effects, and the actors’ stellar performances carry the day.

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So who is Doctor Strange? Quite simply, he’s Marvel Comics’ magic guy, the way Iron Man is their tech guy and the Hulk is their green, angry guy. But he doesn’t start off the film as a master of the fantastical arts.  Oh, no, this movie is his origin story (had enough of those yet?), and so our tale begins with an ordinary doctor.

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Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an oh-so-brilliant yet oh-so-arrogant neurosurgeon who faces the loss of his career after a brutal car accident. Suffering severe nerve damage in both hands, he is told that he will never again be able to steadily hold a scalpel. Refusing to give up, he spends every penny he has trying to fix his hands. He undergoes procedure after procedure, but none of them are successful. Having exhausted all that Western medicine has to offer, Strange hears tell of someone the “Ancient One,” someone in Nepal who miraculously healed a man’s spine. In hopes of a similar miracle, Strange spends the last of savings on a one-way plane ticket.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE L to R: The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) Photo Credit: Film Frame ©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Upon arriving in Nepal, Strange meets this Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who tries to explain that she healed the man’s spine using magic drawn from other dimensions.  As you might expect, Strange scoffs at her, saying he doesn’t buy “the power of belief.”  But then, in one fell swoop, the Ancient One shows him how limited his view of reality really is. In one of film’s best and most arresting scenes, Strange hurtles through dimension after dimension, each one visually stunning in its own way. I’m not kidding about how crazy this sequence is; there were several moments where I found myself gasping at what was happening on-screen. It’s some seriously brave, trippy stuff, especially for a blockbuster film, and it’s easily worth the price of a 3D ticket. By the time Strange returns to solid ground, he believes in magic—and so will you.

Doctor Strange is at its best in moments like these, when it tests the boundaries of what a big-budget superhero movie can be. Every second of the introduction to this fascinating new world of sorcery and magic is exciting. The film takes on a tone that is less “typical superhero flick” and more “action fantasy epic.”  It’s a fresh twist on a genre that all too often seems like it’s stagnating.

The cast represents another one of the film’s strong points. Cumberbatch makes the perfect Dr. Strange—he channels the suave, haughty energy of the pre-accident Strange equally as strongly as he portrays the desperation of a character looking for a way back to his old life. Swinton also plays the hell out of the complex Ancient One, who leads a globe-spanning group of mystics that combat magical threats. Though the filmmakers’ decision to cast a white woman for the part of a character written in the comics as an Asian man raises a lot of issues (why not cast an Asian woman if they wanted a woman to play the part?*), Swinton does great work here. Whether she’s fighting off enemy sorcerers or explaining her tea recipe to Doctor Strange, she always conveys a sense of wisdom and power. Two other sorcerers, Wong (played by Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are also well cast, and their exchanges with Strange are often hilarious.

When the film explores its mystical elements, the visual results are dazzling, full of brilliant colors and disorienting changes in perspective. The movie makes great use of magic during its fight scenes: characters flip hallways upside down, make buildings collapse into one another, and quite literally turn back time.  In one particularly memorable scene, Strange and his allies run through an upside-down version of New York City, featuring floating fire escapes, buildings growing from the sky, and taxis driving up walls. Director Scott Derrickson clearly commits to a unique set of visual aesthetics, and his work pays off.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

But, as a I said before, this is a superhero movie. For all of its original ideas and visuals, the core narrative is overly familiar and may test the patience of viewers. Strange goes on an archetypal journey: he starts out as an arrogant man who only cares about himself, and over the course of the story-line he becomes a hero willing to sacrifice anything to save the world.  And “save the world” he does, for the film presents a cliché, villainous plot that the hero must foil.  Mad sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) toys with a power he does not understand, and he wants to use it to destroy the world. Doctor Strange is the only one who can stop him (you know how the story goes, because we’ve seen it before). As with a lot of Marvel movies, the villain doesn’t get all that much screen time, so his motives end up seeming unclear. And he’s not the only one. Strange’s love interest for the film, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is given pretty limited attention in the grand scheme of things. She only appears in a few scenes, and we never find out much about who she is or what she believes in. Instead she mostly serves the purpose of telling us about the protagonist.

That said, while Doctor Strange is indeed a superhero movie, it’s still unlike any you’ve seen before.  By introducing a new and fascinating world of magic, it reinvigorates old tropes, and its special effects alone are practically worth the price of admission. Moreover, it’s certainly no Avengers movie, so if you’re tired of those don’t hesitate to give this one a try. And if you’re looking to take a break from the Sci Li this weekend, there’s no better film to whisk you away than Doctor Strange.

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Editor’s Note: We do not condone the use of yellow-face in this movie and whitewashing in Hollywood.

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