Review: Doctor Strange

Cocky but brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange gets into an horrific car accident that shatters the bones in his much-needed hands. After trying just about everything in the book, a tip-off from a man he once turned away (Benjamin Bratt) leads Strange to Kamar-Taj in Nepal, a temple presided over by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). It is here that Strange will (after freeing himself of ego) learn to expand his mind, twist reality, master the various dimensional planes, learn to control time, and conjure magic energy. Oh, and dabble in martial-arts on occasion. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays The Ancient One’s disciple Karl Mordo, Benedict Wong plays Wong who is basically the no-nonsense temple librarian, Rachel McAdams is Strange’s girlfriend and fellow surgeon, and Mads Mikkelson plays Kaecilius, who will be your villain today.

Perhaps a bit plagiaristic at times, this 2016 Marvel comics adaptation from director Scott Derrickson (whose films range from the fun “Sinister” and “Poltergeist” remake to the completely incoherent “Hellraiser: Inferno”) is nonetheless too goofy and weird not to entertain. I was expecting something a little more po-faced, but hey…one takes what one can get. I don’t often enjoy the MCU films, so at least this wasn’t ponderous and too pre-occupied with setting up three sequels and a dozen spin-offs. Scripted by the director (it’s his best film to date) along with C. Robert Cargill (“Sinister”) and Jon Spaihts (“The Darkest Hour”, “Prometheus”), it ties in with the MCU, but like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man”, it still manages to be its own thing. It’s also one of the few comic book movies to make me almost want to check out the comic book. Also if you liked this film but claim to hate the “Green Lantern” movie, you’re either a liar or a hypocrite (Don’t get mad, I’m the one tasked with having admitted to kinda liking “The Green Lantern” movie a little bit).

FX and action-wise, this one’s a winner looking like an almost exact blend of “The Matrix” and “Inception”. I’m not entirely certain it serves much purpose, but all the folding of buildings and the like provide some very cool visuals and differentiate the film from any of the other MCU films. I don’t normally have the highest tolerance for the Eastern religious spiritual mumbo jumbo, but once again here it sets the film apart from others in the genre and isn’t as corny as I was expecting. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the comic book was born out of the late 60s, this is really hippy dippy trippy stuff in the most complimentary sense.

What really gives this film a lift is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, without resorting to the glib, off-putting cool flippancy of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Yes, the central character here shares an egotism with Stark, but in this case our lead is a doctor, and as far as I’m concerned if my doctor doesn’t think he’s the best doctor in the world, I don’t want him anywhere near me. You need a healthy ego when you have someone’s life/health in your hands. Thankfully for the purposes of cinematic entertainment though, Dr. Strange also experiences a humbling fairly quickly. If not, he’d probably be completely insufferable like Stark.

He’s not terrible at it, but I’m not sure it was entirely necessary for Benedict Cumberbatch to do a Yank accent. I get fidelity to the source, but it wouldn’t be the most nonsensical thing for the character to be British and living/working in the US. As is, it causes an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise fine casting choice. Speaking of the cast, this sure is an eclectic and occasionally high-brow collection of actors for a superhero movie: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen (who is amusing here, if not especially menacing), and Tilda Swinton are all critics’ favourites, Rachel McAdams is an Oscar-nominee, Michael Stuhlbarg apparently has to appear in everything now, and to top it all off you have the most underrated and underutilised action star around in Scott Adkins. All in the same movie.

I have no idea why people freaked out about Tilda Swinton playing an ‘Asian’ character. People don’t seem to be pissed that the male character is now female, just that it’s no longer Asian apparently. Here’s the thing, though that stops this from being ‘white-washing’ in my book: It’s a fucking superhero film. A comic book fantasy. Emphasis on fantasy. It’s make believe, people. It doesn’t matter, OK? Yeah? Good. So for me Swinton was really terrific, your mileage may be different dependent upon cultural sensitivities (which despite my flippancy, I do have at least a tiny bit of understanding towards, I just think the film gets away with it at the end of the day). I was a bit less enamoured with the plot and character similarities to a galaxy far, far away. Yes, the comic came out before “Star Wars”, but that doesn’t mean this film had to be made, and indeed Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous character does essentially function as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader to Tilda Swinton’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. In fact, one scene involving Swinton’s Ancient One is a little too similar to an iconic moment from “A New Hope” so as to be on-the-nose for me. It didn’t, however ruin my enjoyment of the film, it was just a bit of a shame. The film could’ve been even better. The one thing that did stick in my craw a bit was mainstream cinema’s continued waste of the multi-talented and charismatic Scott Adkins. Yet again he’s been given a virtual bit part in a mainstream film, cast as one of Mads Mikkelson’s underlings. Worse still, while we’re witness to the rather bizarre sight of Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor engaging in martial-arts, the legit martial-arts guy (though to be fair, Ejiofor is a 5th degree black belt in karate too) is rendered not only a lowly henchman, but the most easily dispatched one. He gets outwitted by a red cape! Even the likes of Van Damme and Jason Statham have had longer stoushes with Adkins, but Sherlock Holmes can kick his arse in mere seconds? Yeah, right. I did rather enjoy a hopefully intentionally funny fight between the two men’s ghosts while Strange’s real body was on the operating table. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like that before. As for Rachel McAdams, hers is a stock-standard part so it’s a good thing a likeable actress was cast.

This is kind of dopey, but I think the filmmakers are aware of it. Although it cribs from other sources, I appreciated its humour and difference from the otherwise quite samey MCU films. It was also nice to have a superhero who doesn’t change his name when he/she becomes a superhero.

Rating: B-


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