Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

(dir. Scott Derrickson)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
After an arrogant doctor loses the use of his hands in car accident, he travels the world in search of a cure and discovers an order of sorcerers and the power selflessness that enable him to take on a rogue apprentice bent on delivering immortality to humanity at any cost.

There has been a certain sameness to Marvel Studios’ pictures of late, resulting in enjoyable but ultimately disappointing trips through a universe that feels increasingly stripped down in their efforts to deliver a more unified style and tone. While Doctor Strange may be a lesser known Marvel property, there was never any chance that the movie would fail financially, but artistically one could see it either going the way of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and introducing a new energy and style worthy of our investment in this cinematic universe, or the way of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man by giving us a few new, fun concepts, but ultimately doing little (no pun-intended) to really give us something unlike anything else we’ve seen in blockbusters. Luckily, Doctor Strange falls far closer to Guardians of the Galaxy, not in tone or style, but in its sense that this is a film crafted by a director with a clear vision of how their voice can add to the MCU, not be swallowed whole by it.

While the superhero origin story has become a bit trying for moviegoers, the use of the origin in Doctor Strange is a necessity that firmly situates us within the new concepts introduced here. The Marvel formula the comics and films are built on are apparent in this film, as the hero learns the cost of his hubris and discovers, in so many words, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This manta, true as it is, isn’t what makes these characters or this movie work, but rather the variations on this theme. Yes, in broad strokes, Doctor Strange’s journey to heroism isn’t too dissimilar from Iron Man, or Thor, or Star Lord, or Ant-Man but it’s the execution that matters with these characters and movies. What’s always potentially fresh and fascinating is not the why of these heroes, but the how, and on that front Doctor Strange delivers one of the best origin stories of the MCU. Despite the film’s brisk pace (it runs just under two hours), Doctor Strange manages to do what so few superhero films manage to do well, even with an extended runtime, which is to allow their hero to learn their lesson and increase their skills over a what feels like an extended period of time, rather than just a few days’ time (looking at you, Thor) or a montage that rushes the pacing (Captain America: The First Avenger). Even after Strange’s years of training in Nepal, he still isn’t a master of the mystic arts, nor has he completely learned humility yet. The character’s journey is constant and in the spirt of Mad Max: Fury Road happens through the action scenes and supporting characters, not outside of them. Whether it be because of Derrickson’s knowledge of the character, or Marvel’s realization that the superhero origin story had to be reworked in order to function, Doctor Strange is the most adept solo-origin character for the studio since they kicked things off with Iron Man in 2008.

Marvel Studios never whiffs when it comes to casting and Doctor Strange is no different. There was never any doubt that Benedict Cumberbatch would make an excellent Doctor Strange, what’s most surprising is that he actually got to play the role. His casting is of the kind that fifteen years ago fans would have clamored for while the studio system went with Nic Cage or Johnny Depp. Cumberbatch sells it completely, managing to live up to the suave intrigue of the comic character while adding his own bit of charm that surprisingly makes him more likeable and identifiable than his comic counterpart. While Strange is typically emotionally closed in the source material, Cumberbatch goes the opposite direction by allowing us to feel his anger, disappointment, confusion, and over-confidence. While some of these emotions may mask larger personal issues, as his teacher, the Ancient One, points out, they allow for a layered character whose flaws make him likeable. Mads Mikkelsen, Chitwetel Ejiofor, and Benedict Wong each respectively shine as Kaecilius, Mordo, and Wong respectively. These characters who were steeped in tropes of the 60s are given the same layered treatment as Strange, establishing this as a world with supporting characters and villains who hold just as much promise as their hero. The film doesn’t delve much into anyone’s backstory and while this may be prove frustrating for some, it creates a level of intrigue similar to that of Disney other major franchise, Star Wars. Unfortunately, this intrigue and layered presentation doesn’t hold true for Rachel McAdams’ Nurse Christine Palmer. McAdams gives a likeable performance as Strange’s love interest and semi-confidant but there’s not much to her character outside of being there to showcase Strange’s change from selfishness to selflessness. She’s not a character who works on her own, and wouldn’t be missed in a sequel, which is a shame given McAdams talents. But female characters aren’t left completely out of the loop of greatness as Tilda Swinton shines in her performance as the Ancient One. Typically, she’s given roles the rely on coldness, but Swinton displays and warmth and humor that’s so engaging that it’s evident why the Ancient One would have so many devout followers. Swinton’s casting was controversial given that in the comic’s the Ancient One is an elderly Asian man, and I had my doubts that this would be handled well. But Swinton’s Ancient One is that comic character in name only, her hinted background, and personality being one created entirely for the film. Together Swinton and Cumberbatch perform one of my very favorite scenes in the MCU, a quiet character moment right before the film’s climax that really showcases a film that resonates beyond its visual acumen.

There’s really no shortchanging what Scott Derrickson and cinematographer Ben Davis do visually with this film. We’ve seen some pretty spectacular action set-pieces in superhero movies, just in this year alone we’ve seen some standout ones, but we haven’t seen anything like Doctor Strange. All of those adjectives and descriptions that have been thrown around since the trailer, “trippy”, “InceptionX10” “Ditko by way of Escher” are all true, so it’s no wonder that we’re running out of ways to describe it. But this isn’t just a film of cool cinematic visuals, this is Derrickson playing with dimensions of space and time in a way we haven’t seen another director do in live-action. These are cool visuals with a rule-book that’s every bit as fascinating to hear the characters discuss as it is to see them. The magic in this film never just becomes characters shooting energy beams at each other, but is built on a more sci-fi principle that sorcerers pull energy from different dimensions and this energy comes with a cost. The cost of magic is a theme that runs throughout the film, leading to some surprising elements of darkness. Even with this newfound darkness that is obviously a result of Derrickson’s horror background, Marvel has an unfortunate tendency to shortchange their dramatic beats by immediately positioning a humorous one right after, but it’s less egregious here than in Civil War and ultimately does little damage to a strong film. Doctor Strange shows Marvel’s growing confidence with the weirdness of their universe, and while not every comedic beat works, it does feel more earned and like a celebration of the source material, than the “please like me” self-mockery some of the other films have employed in their efforts to appeal the widest of general audiences.

Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s best films, a phrase that gets thrown around with every new Marvel Studios release, but this time it’s true. Doctor Strange manages to stay high-energy while still delivering the emotional character beats we want from these films. Even more impressive is that the film doesn’t hesitate to go deep into the comic mythology, introducing something in the last act that I’d guessed would be saved for a post-credit scene, and handling it with respect to character motivations on all sides. Marvel did right by hiring an experienced filmmaker who’s worked in the industry long enough to develop his own sensibilities. Scott Derrickson has become just as integral to the development of the MCU as Joss Whedon was and James Gunn is, and with luck he’ll be keeping magic alive in the MCU for a long time to come.

Grade: A-

*There are 2 post-credit sequences.