Doctor Strange (2016)
Expand your mind
Casting a spell on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange certainly lives up to its name, the fourteenth film in the ever-expanding Marvel-verse delivering the studio’s most mind-bending experience to date. Best described as a trippy amalgamation of Christopher Nolan’s excellent Inception (2010) and M. Night Shyamalan botched The Last Airbender (2010), this hypnotizing ‘trip’ into the Astral, Dark and Mirror Dimensions mixes kinetic wizardry with mystic psychedelia. Last seen in 1978’s live-action telly movie Dr. Strange — the doc portrayed by Peter Hooten — it’s clear that fans of the Sorcerer Supreme (created by Steve Ditko in 1963) have been waiting ions for the character’s long awaited big-screen return!
Opening with an enthralling prelude that wickedly teases what’s in store, our adventure begins when a bad guy named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) teleports into a Nepalese monastery and rips a page out of one of their magic books, the villain conjuring another porthole then escaping into downtown London. He and his zealots, however, are perused by a hooded figure that begins to assault the crooks. What follows is a battle unlike any we’ve ever seen, one in an altering dimension of shifting hallucinogenic patterns — a dreamlike prologue that’s sure to grab audience attention.
Cut to New York, where we meet ultra-arrogant Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a gifted neurosurgeon obsessed with wealth and glory, whose only friend is his irritated ex-girlfriend, fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Stephen’s fate takes a downward turn when he accidentally drives his sports car off a winding road, his hands sustaining serious nerve damage, the calamity rendering the once thriving practitioner useless.
After conventional science fails him, the shattered doctor pushes Christine away, the sulking ex-surgeon finding himself at rock bottom, alone in his opulent high-rise apartment. That’s until he’s offered a means of salvation after hearing about a shadowy place in Kathmandu that once helped a paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt) find his legs again. It’s there that our would-be-hero meets the Ancient One (a bald-headed Tilda Swinton), a seemingly immortal Celtic woman with the ability to harness the mystic arts and do all sorts of nifty stuff, like hurl the skeptic through various dimensions — this kaleidoscopic sequence basically justifying the price of admission. Now, with his third-eye open, Stephen Strange joins forces with the Ancient One, the former cynic intent on mastering the supernatural craft in the same way he once learned medicine, whilst working with her cohorts, strict assistant Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and protector of the sacred tomes, Wong (Benedict Wong) — the latter supplying some left-field levity — to thwart those intent on abusing this very same power.
For those who have ever knocked the Marvel-verse for its general sameness, this one’s for you! Written and directed by horror maestro Scott Derrickson, Sinister (2012), Doctor Strange is a visually arresting movie with a stupendous amount of flair. But unlike most big-budget blockbusters of late, the story by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, Prometheus (2012), and C. Robert Cargill, Sinister (2012), drives the spectacular special effects and not the other way around, the flick’s eye-popping images injecting the tired and old with a dab of something fresh and new. Dazzling shots that see New York’s cityscape bend and fold into itself are off-the-wall amazing — these breathtaking vistas making the shifting dreamscapes in Christopher Nolan’s Inception look like basic VFX tests — while the film’s climactic battle, which sees time uncoil in multiple directions at once, is simply, pardon the expression, pure cinematic magic.
That said, the script is at its weakest when servicing the basic requirements of an origin story, the writers’ hands more-or-less tied as they follow Strange’s transformation from boastful doctor to all-powerful sorcerer, one who’s able to manipulate the constraints of both time and space. This bold new vision, however, seems to have come at a cost with Marvel reaching a point in its timeline where president Kevin Feige may be forced to do some tweaking (in terms of his core cast), the introduction of Strange making this possible (and plausible), his powers able to mold alternate storylines for several of the studio’s older characters — look, Downey Jr. can’t play Iron Man forever, only time will tell I guess.
Armed with the Cloak of Levitation — which he finds encased in glass at his eventual home, the Sanctum Sanctorum — and the Eye of Agamotto, Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game (2014), makes Dr. Stephen Strange his own, the 40-year-old emphasizing the titular character’s egotism and big headedness while retaining his usual allure and charm — it’s a difficult tightrope to walk but Cumberbatch balances it nicely, the English actor bringing a real sense of humanity to the role; plus, he looks totally kick-ass when conjuring magic glyphs and shooting power out from his hands. In order to avoid racial stereotypes and the political climate around Tibet, the role of the Ancient One was altered from that of a Tibetan man and changed into a Nepalese woman, portrayed here by Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer (2013). Whitewashing accusations aside, Swinton makes for a good fit as the millennia-old sage, her soft melodic voice and mesmerizing mannerisms working in favor of the character’s quasi gender-neutral interpretation.
Elsewhere, Hannibal (2013) star Mads Mikkelsen makes the most out of his underwritten role as Kaecilius, the Ancient One’s corrupt former student who works instead of the true big bad, an evil entity known as Dormammu (motion-caped by Mr. Cumberbatch) — a regular Doctor Strange foe who’ll hopefully be explored further later down the line. Lastly, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2013), doesn’t do much as skilled mage Karl Mordo, although I sense he’ll have more to do in future installments, while Rachel McAdams, Spotlight (2015), leaves enough of an impression as Strange’s old flame Christine Palmer.
Sure, Doctor Strange isn’t without its flaws — the film often moves at a hurried pace and several of its A-list stars are wasted — but if you’re looking for an antidote to the customary Marvel fare, this outré escapade, which works on its own and as part of the wider canon, might be just what the doctor ordered. Be sure to stick around for two post credits scenes: the first, which features the ruler of Asgard, and the second exposing a character’s hidden motives, both offering a taste of what’s to come. Stranger things lie ahead.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie