Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange

Rating

Director

Scott Derrickson

Screenplay

Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill

Length

115 min.

Starring

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence

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Review

Just like the comics on which they are based, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe is an ever-expanding gallery of films that add more characters and more plot threads than any one series can handle. Doctor Strange doesn’t quite extend the property too far, but there are more than a few issues that become more obvious and disappointing the farther the universe expands.

After The Avengers brought together four towering figures of the franchise, Disney began introducing new heroes to bolster its ranks just in case the existing quartet decided to leave for new and browner pastures. While a number of their new characters have been introduced in the confines of one of the prior films, two have been given their own origin stories as stand alone films of dubious necessity.

With Ant-Man, Disney took a path that Guardians of the Galaxy mined so successfully, focusing on comedy as a means of narrative drive rather than as a diversion. On the other end of the spectrum, Doctor Strange gave them an opportunity to build on the franchise’s dramatic successes, using humor as a garnish rather than as the main course. While these may seem like entirely different approaches, the outcomes are largely the same.

In Doctor Strange, we look into Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant and wealthy neurosurgeon whose career is destroyed when a car accident leaves him with two shattered hands that even the best surgeons cannot fix. After discovering a man (Benjamin Bratt) who healed after a debilitating incident that left him paralyzed below the waist, Strange goes on a pilgrimage to an unusual Tibetan monastery where the enigmatic Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) helps teach him to harness an otherworldly magic and become something far more powerful than he ever imagined.

Before this latest Marvel incarnation, the myriad heroes Disney has introduced have ranged from wealthy men with super suits to scientifically altered men (and women) to Norse gods. This is their first foray into the mystical realm, which opens up a host of possibilities, even within the film itself. While the premise and execution may look different, the underlying story structure and resolution are not dissimilar from past incarnations. That’s both comforting and disappointing.

Doctot Strange follows that very specific Disney formula almost verbatim. This formula, honed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, has become the template for all Marvel Cinematic Universe films, giving them cohesive visual and thematic elements while offering talented directors very little maneuverability. That said, a few bright spots have popped up since the series debuted eight years ago. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and its forebear Captain America: The First Avenger) went in a slightly different direction, but did so quite effectively. That film remains the franchise’s best entry. Doctor Strange tries at times to diverge from that path, shifting into a modestly darker setting within the universe while remaining generally lighthearted.

Cumberbatch is the perfect actor to take on this role, though there’s a bit too much of his Sherlock Holmes persona in this particular performance, with an admittedly more humorous, less intellectual tone. Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a good compatriot in Mordo while Mads Mikkelsen brings his absolute best humanity to a dark, selfish villain that might be one of the series’ most authentic. Benedict Wong is a well used, though infrequent, presence. Swinton does a fine job, but her unique talents are largely wasted, giving the audience pause to wonder why they didn’t just stick with the comic character’s Asian origins.

Lastly, Rachel McAdams continues the recent trend of taking on the role of the attractive, poorly-constructed female character. Hot off the heels of Evangeline Lilly’s mediocre Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man, the writers have tried to give Strange’s love interest Christine Palmer some strength, but she’s underutilized and the character doesn’t seem to have nearly as much depth as needed or desired. Like Lilly, either McAdams isn’t very good as an actress (generally debatable), or the weakness of the character hinders her ability to flesh it out. The defense most often levied, one that is entirely inappropriate in this concept, is that the original character wasn’t developed much either. That may be the case, but it’s a far different time (some 50 years separate) and it’s poor screenwriter who throws in a token female love interest.

Doctor Strange has a lot of positive qualities. It’s entertaining in ways the last Avengers film (Civil War)was not. It’s not perfect, but with the DC universe struggling to find a more invigorating output, at least there’s something as familiar and unencumbered as Doctor Strange to keep us entertained.

Oscar Prospects

Probables: Visual Effects
Potentials: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing

Review Written

November 16, 2016

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