by Coop Cooper
Based off of the Marvel comic book from the 1970’s, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant, yet brilliant New York neurosurgeon, considered the top in his field. After a terrible car crash causes severe nerve damage to both of his hands, he searches for a miracle cure that will restore his steady-handed surgical abilities. A last-ditch effort sends him to Nepal where he meets a mystical guru known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who offers him a chance to heal himself through the mastery of magic. Strange reluctantly begins training in the mystic arts and finds that his photographic memory, strong will and precise reflexes make him a prodigious student. As his skills with magic begin to quickly reach the highest levels, he learns that his mentors are involved in a war with a dark magician named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who intends to achieve immortality by sacrificing Earth to the evil god ‘Dormammu’. Strange’s quick mastery of magic puts him in the middle of this fight which he has had little time to prepare for.
Of all the upcoming Marvel films, this was the one I was most worried about. Doctor Strange is a major character in the comics, but largely unknown by the general public and his powers are somewhat nebulous to describe and understand. When I heard the film would feature ‘trippy’ effects like the ones seen in “2001: A Space Odyssey” I feared that it would be too weird to attract a mainstream audience and that the “Doctor Strange” film might turn into Marvel’s first bomb. I’m glad to say my fears were totally unrealized as this might be the most surprisingly satisfying Marvel film since “Guardians of the Galaxy”.
The film succeeds due to these three qualities: 1. Strong leading actors 2. Spectacular special effects and 3. Humor.
Since he appeared on the scene, no one has disputed Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting ability or star power, but this film solidifies it completely. Tilda Swinton steals all the scenes she appears in, which is a relief considering her casting caused a bit of controversy since the original character was male, but more importantly, Asian. While the subject of ‘whitewashing’ characters is currently a sticky subject in Hollywood, Swinton won me over completely. Also strong is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s ‘Baron Mordo’ who begins as Strange’s teacher and friend, but is destined to become his greatest nemesis. Ten years ago, Ejiofor could have easily been cast as the Marvel character “Black Panther”, but I am glad he in the Marvel Universe, even if he is playing a little-known villain (I still think he would make a great ‘Doctor Who’). Mikkelsen gets some great speeches as the lead villain, but I hope one day he will score more heroic roles as he can play a good guy just as well. Rachel McAdams is a great actress, but here, she doesn’t get enough to do to elevate her above a standard ex-girlfriend character.
About those special effects… They are trippy, they are impossibly complex and they look like they costed a fortune. While it’s easy to compare it to what we have already seen in “The Matrix” and “Inception”, the effects in this film tops both of those in sheer volume and design. They make the combat scenes impressively complex and so visually stunning, it’s difficult to wrap your head around all of it. Nevertheless, the visuals are one of the most rewarding parts of the film, but thankfully they don’t completely carry the weight of it.
The humor does the rest of the heavy lifting. I don’t recall the “Doctor Strange” comic having funny moments, but it was obviously the best way to balance out this film and it was a good call to keep the tone light with all of the weirdness going on in the story. In fact, Strange’s sense of humor is the only thing that makes him likable until he finally shakes off his arrogance. Early on in the film, right before his wreck, he takes a call from a doctor who gives Strange the chance to do surgery on James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who broke his spine and became a paraplegic at the end of “Captain America: Civil War”. Strange declines – too lowball for him – which does not endear him to us at all in the beginning, so the humor helps until he becomes less of a jerk.
One of the post-credit stingers teases that Doctor Strange will appear in “Thor: Ragnarok” which will open in November of next year. It also hints at his becoming a future member of The Avengers. With the Marvel machine continuously rolling at full speed, it’s a matter of time before they eventually produce a stinker, but gratefully, “Doctor Strange” is one of their best efforts.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars