Doctor Strange (2016)

I think, at this point, it can’t be denied that Marvel Studios has figured ‘it’ out. Ever since the first ‘Iron Man’, in 2008, they’ve churned out hit…after hit…after hit. Sure, some of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been on the slightly underwhelming side (looking at YOU, ‘Thor: The Dark World’), but by and large, they’ve all done what they needed to do (much to the chagrin of DC Comics)…and that was entertain us nerdy geeks and separate us from our $12 to $20. And here arrives their newest addition into this ever expanding ‘universe’…’Doctor Strange’. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews of comic book adaptations, it’s been YEARS (about 25 of them) since I was a hardcore comic book collector, but even back in the day…I wasn’t too familiar with the character or adventures of the 1960’s era ‘Dr. Strange’. That was more my dad’s territory..though I’m not sure how into the character he may have been either. However, I was familiar with his look and the trippy ideas and visuals behind his particular ‘universe’, and the fact that he was VERY obviously modeled after the late, great Vincent Price…so when I heard that they were going to be adding him into the MCU…I was intrigued. I became even more intrigued when I heard about who they’d been courting for the title role…the One…the Only…Benedict Cumberbatch. When I first heard of The Batch…I thought he was going to turn out to be nothing more than a pretentious British flash-in-the-pan thespian. Then I watched ‘Sherlock’…and was instantly smitten with the man…despite my blatant heterosexuality. He’s just so damn good! He’s got a unique look, obvious charisma, and intelligence to burn, and he effortlessly brings those qualities to every role I’ve seen him in. So when it was announced that he was going to be joining the MCU in THIS capacity…I was intrigued. Fast forward to this past weekend and my girlfriend and I needed a reason to leave our newly adopted puppy alone at home by herself, so we decided to hit up the theatre and get lost in the 3D psychedelic adventures of ‘Dr. Stephen Vincent Strange’.
After a quick, tone-setting prologue introducing us to ‘Kaecilius’ (Mads Mikkelsen); a dark sorcerer commanding a group of dangerous minions on a murky, nefarious quest…we meet ‘Dr. Stephen Strange’ (Benedict Cumberbatch); a highly gifted and VERY arrogant neurosurgeon, with a penchant for music trivia, at the top of his game in New York as he flirts with his former flame / fellow doctor ‘Christine Palmer’ (Rachel McAdams) in the operating room, while taunting his rival colleague ‘Dr. Nicodemus West’ (Michael Stuhlbarg) at every turn. One rainy night a short time later, while ripping around in a luxury sports car, ‘Strange’ stupidly looses control and spectacularly crashes into a river, nearly destroying his hands in the process. The damage is severe, threatening to end his prosperous career; a concept that plunges him into a deep depression and fills him with a determined obsession to repair his hands / life, no matter what the cost. After learning of a once paralyzed man named ‘Pangborn’ (Benjamin Bratt), who allegedly found a cure for his condition somewhere in the mysterious Far East, ‘Strange’ removes himself from society and strikes out for Nepal to learn the truth. After many frustrations, he finally finds himself in the company of a mysterious cult-like group, led by ‘The Ancient One’ (Tilda Swinton) and her two lieutenants ‘Mordo’ (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and ‘Wong’ (Benedict Wong). He soon discovers that these secretive people are powerful magic practitioners who do, in fact, have the means to heal him. However, in the taxing process of learning their ancient craft, ‘Strange’ finds himself in the dangerous path of ‘Kaecilius’, who is determined to unleash a terrifically destructive force on the world.
‘Doctor Strange’ is a highly entertaining addition to the MCU…but not a fantastic one. It does have some noticeable issues. But before I get into those…let’s discuss The Good. Right off the bat, and no surprise here, Cumberbatch does it again. I liked his portrayal of the full-of-himself American doctor (I didn’t hear his natural British accent come through once), and it was nice to see the subtle layers he brought to the character as the story unfolded. While he was able to eventually tap into the stoic gravitas of the Sorcerer Supreme, he also continued to show a deft hand with both physical comedy and wit, one that he nicely established in ‘Sherlock’. This also extends to his refreshingly platonic relationship with ‘Christine Palmer’, as played by Rachel McAdams. Normally McAdams does virtually nothing for me (I think I can thank the goddamned ‘The Notebook’ for that!), but here she was appealing and had a few good comedic moments, while also acting as something of an anchor for ‘Strange’, as he moved through the mind-boggling world of inter-dimensional magic. Pretty much the entire cast was solid, it must be said. For all the stupid ‘white washing’ controversy bullshit that came about when Tilda Swinton (‘Constantine’) was announced in the role of ‘The Ancient One’ (originally an Asian man, I believe), I liked her take on the openly Celtic character. She came across as more humble and human than I expected from someone with virtually the powers of a demi-god. Mads Mikkelsen (‘Casino Royale’) brought an intelligent ‘snarl’ to ‘Kaecilius’, as he does with all his villainous roles, but as we’ve seen with other Marvel flicks, the core of his ‘bad guy’ was a little underwritten. He did well with what he had to work with.
On a technical level, this movie looks REALLY pretty. And that’s not even getting in to brain-bending eye-fuckery that pours across the screen as the narrative hits the gas. Director Scott Derrickson (‘Sinister’) clearly knows how to craft a good-looking composition and he puts that to use from the very first shot. Then there’s the visual effects. This is an area where ‘Doctor Strange’ excels! When they get into the inter-dimensional, physics-be-damned fight scenes, that’s where the extra $3 for the 3D version pay off. There’s some REALLY cool and interesting visual ideas on display for the characters to navigate through and they don’t disappoint. Hell, even just ‘Strange’s training montages leap out at the audience and definitely added a little extra spark (no pun intended) to the proceedings.
And now…The Not So Good. It’s not an absolute deal breaker, but the pacing definitely could’ve used both some padding and some tightening…as weird as that might sound. For a nearly two hour movie, it felt like some scene extensions would’ve helped. Certain plot points come about too quickly or too easily, and it was noticeable. It somehow felt like the 3rd Act got a bit of a shaft and was resolved too quickly for my liking. For all we were shown, I was left with a bit of a ‘That’s it?!’ kind of a feeling. I know that both Disney and Marvel are squeamish about ‘Extended’ or ‘Director’s’ cuts of their properties, but this is one that definitely could benefit from some added material, in my humble opinion. Speaking of ‘material’, I do have to say that, while much of the humor was welcome and effective, some of it fell on it’s face (A Beyonce gag? Really?!). There were a couple of jokes that were just a little too obvious and came off as trying too hard for the laugh. Other reviewers have astutely pointed out a similarity in structure and tone to the first ‘Iron Man’, and it doesn’t take much digging to come to the same conclusion. The structure is very similar, only in comparison, this one comes off as a little more half-baked. They even use a gag involving a near-sentient object in the protagonists life as a source of levity. In ‘Iron Man’, it was the 3 Stooge-like robotic arms that ‘Tony Stark’ commanded, while here, it was ‘Strange’s Cloak of Levitation that got in on the physical comedy. This isn’t necessarily a ‘dig’ at the material…it just felt a little like we’d seen it before.
All in all, ‘Doctor Strange’ was a well crafted and fun addition to the MCU that suffered a little at the script / editing phase. Cumberbatch was solid in the lead role and was supported by a number of good actors who brought what they needed to bring to make the somewhat thin story work. If you’re a fan of the 3D format, I’d say that you owe it to yourself to hit up that version on The Big Screen. But even if 2D is your jam…definitely check it out at the theatre. There’s enough eye candy and effective jokes on display to make it worth your time and I’m genuinely curious to see what Marvel has in store for the character next.

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