Marvel Gets Strange.
Greetings, Masters of the Mystic Arts!
My name is The Professor, and it is my job to review movies for HeyPoorPlayer.com. Usually, I will review a movie that has been out for a while, but for this inaugural movie review, I thought I would break the tradition I have yet to actually establish and review a brand new movie. So let us journey to the Dark Realm with the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Doctor Strange.
The character of Dr. Strange, for those who don’t know, has been a player in the Marvel Universe since 1963 when he appeared in the comic Strange Tales, a book that split its time between tales of the eponymous doctor and Nick Fury. Conceptualized by the legendary Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange used magical powers to protect the Earth from other-dimensional forces that sought to create havoc, enslave, or otherwise antagonize our world. He’s been a Defender, an Avenger, the Sorcerer Supreme, and a plain old human. He’s diverse like that.
The film, starring the master of mesmerizing monikers Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, is yet another origin story movie. The basic premise is that Dr. Strange, a surgeon, is a jerk and his hubris leads him to crash his car, break his hands, and ruin his own career. If this were an episode of The Twilight Zone, the story would end here with Rod Serling politely telling us Strange got what he deserved. Only this is Marvel, a studio that finds it impossible to create a character that doesn’t have egomania as their key character flaw. Instead of building a suit of armor or meeting Natalie Portman in a desert to fix this problem, Strange ensconces himself in a group of mystic warriors led by the enigmatic Ancient One, a not-so-ancient-looking bald woman (Tilda Swinton) who seems to delight in never directly answering a question. In a spoiler-free summary, Strange teams up with a fairly stereotypical selection of these mystics to defeat a rogue mystic and his cadre of zealots. Strange figures out how to be less of a schmuck, and there are 2 post-credit scenes (make sure you stick around for both).
I was shocked when I saw the completed cast list for this movie. Cumberbatch was just in the Oscar game, Swinton often is, same with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams, and Mads Mikkelsen is becoming a staple of every franchise ever (we see him in the new Star Wars film next month). Those are some heavy-hitters in the acting game, and putting them all in one movie seems like a steaming mug of hot instant awesome on a cold winter’s night. But somehow the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Cumberbatch is solid as Strange, and even has a believable American accent. This should come as no surprise since he is a fantastic actor. He was a dream choice for this role and he seems perfectly suited to it and it to him. His interactions with other actors on-screen are believable and the development of his character as expressed through his acting makes us comfortable with this character. This is good as this is a necessity for any character in MCU and it looks like we’re about to get a heaping helping of Dr. Strange in upcoming Marvel movies. Sadly, this is the only character we get with any great amount of depth (well, the 2nd post-credits scene changes that but only a bit). It makes sense that, in a movie called Doctor Strange, the character of Dr. Strange should be the most highly developed person. Unfortunately, Marvel has proven to us time and again that it can work wonders with ancillary characters and 10 minutes of screen time. So why not here? While almost every character in this film works in their own right, they ultimately serve little purpose but to help propel Dr. Strange’s character into the sequel.
Tilda Swinton’s presence in the film generated a heated debate among fans, with accusations of Marvel white-washing a character that is an elderly Tibetan man in the comics. Interviews with Marvel executives and Swinton herself assured us that the reason would be made clear in the film, that her presence would be justified. Honestly, I didn’t see why the Ancient One wasn’t played by an older Asian actor (Ken Watanabe would have been perfect, though my personal indulgence choice would be Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). They shoe-horned a line about the mystic line of Ancient Ones and her being Celtic in there, but it felt forced and unnecessary. But, all accusations of white-washing aside, she did her part well, providing the right balance of wisdom, humor, and self-assuredness that you need from a guru character like hers. Her character does play a pivotal part in the plot, but it is predictable and only truly serves to rocket Strange’s character development through its growing pains faster than a vibranium shield chucked at a Hydra agent’s head.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, and for anyone who is familiar with Marvel comics, his character arc will be absolutely no surprise, but both pre-established fans and newcomers to this character will be thoroughly entertained by the subtly grace conveyed by Ejiofor. Seriously, is there any role this man can’t play? Mordo acts as Strange’s mentor and guide through his transition into the mystic world, teaching him the necessary skills to get through this movie and providing the audience with a character grounded in both the normal and mystic worlds. It is perhaps him, more so than any other ancillary character, who we sympathize with. In addition to Mordo, Strange is taught by Wong (played by Benedict Wong). In the comics, Wong is Strange’s assistant and best friend. He has great wisdom and a biting wit that keeps Strange on his toes. While many of the jokes in this film feel forced (Strange is not a funny guy and his joking feels like Marvel imposing their cinematic formula on him rather than honoring the source material), Wong’s humor is perfectly on. Though his role is small, Wong is a strong addition to the cast. Sadly, I can’t find anything particularly nice to say about Rachel McAdams’s role of Christine. While adequately played, she is no more important to the plot of this film than any of the minor 5-lines-or-less roles. She is the obligatory love interest and nothing more.
Finally, I’m one of those people who feel that the true measure of any movie is its villain. It is on this note that Doctor Strange ultimately fails to impress like past Marvel films. While I love to see Mads Mikkelsen play the bad guy (I’m a HUGE Fannibal), I could not accept him as an imminent menace to the world. Like Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, he appears to be a prominent force for evil, but it turns out his greatest power is posturing. It’s a shame they didn’t give Mikkelsen a meatier part, as he essentially wanders from set piece to set piece with a crew of interchangeable extras and stunt actors blowing things up with his magic powers. As a villain character, he is undeveloped. His motives are simplistic and predictable. And that pony tail…You just want to tug it like a velvet rope and summon a Victorian butler. But his eye makeup is really creepy.
If you are one of those people who favor cinematography and visual effects over characterization, then you will find much more to enjoy in this film than in other Marvel films. I’ll admit I was nervous about how this film would look because the comics tend to be extremely over-the-top and very trippy. However the CG and set design are remarkable, engaging the eye in many ways. I believe it will take several viewings of this film to fully appreciate the visual aesthetics. In particular, the Dark Realm, which is full of abstract shapes and a bevy of bizarre colors, is designed in a way that perfectly conveys the alien nature and threat that its very existence poses. The action is highly engaging, ensuring that your eye never leaves the screen for a moment. It is great to see how far we’ve come since movies like The Matrix, especially since this movie’s visual effects owe much to that franchise’s work.
Final Analysis: This movie is currently riding high at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and a metascore of 72. Usually, I find Metacritic too harsh, but in this case I tend to agree with that score. Solid acting, excellent visual effects, and the standard MCU framework produce a quality film that is held back by mediocre character development and a sub-par villain. Overall, I rate this at the same level as Ant-Man; it adequately sets up a character that will be far more interesting in future MCU installments.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Doctor Strange, Directed by Scott Derrickson, Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton. Released November 4, 2016