Movie Review: Doctor Strange

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After a talented, arrogant neurosurgeon loses the use of his hands in an accident, he looks for a miracle in Nepal and finds a world of magic, including an extra-dimensional threat to humanity’s existence that he must learn to fight.

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Scott Derrickson, 2016

Despite his arrogance, brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is incredibly successful. Seeking glory, he only takes patients if he finds them interesting and feels like he has a chance of success. This frustrates Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the compassionate head of the ER at the hospital where Strange works. Strange’s charmed life changes irrevocably when he crashes his car, causing him to lose function in both hands. He desperately searches for a cure, eventually travelling to Kathmandu for help. There he meets Mordo (Chiewetel Ejiofor), a mysterious monk-like warrior who takes Strange to his master, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange’s world is once again turned upside down as he learns of the existence of magic, challenging his firmly scientific beliefs. He must overcome his skepticism and learn quickly, however, as the ancient order of sorcerors and their protection of our realm are threatened by former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), who wants to open a door to the Dark Dimension and unleash an ancient evil upon Earth.

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This movie took me by surprise. It’s no secret I’ve been disappointed by Marvel’s output lately; their refusal to challenge themselves has been frustrating to say the least. While Doctor Strange falls into a lot of MCU pitfalls – Strange’s origin story is a kind of magical rehash of Tony Stark’s, with similar personalities; the villain problem persists; and there are a number of representation problems that I’ll address – Doctor Strange is a movie that really pushes itself in terms of what the MCU can do with its superheroics. There is so much creativity on display in Doctor Strange. Horror director Scott Derrickson pushes the trippy visuals to their extreme, mashing up 80s neon glow with Inception-esque folding cities, weird body horror with a 2001-esque trip through the cosmos, and lush production design with eerie mirror effects. Doctor Strange contains the most creative fight scenes in years; each battle is distinct, whether they’re in the distorted mirror universe, astrally projecting through a hospital, or battling as time moves in peculiar ways. The film also allows for a significant dose of quirky humour that I found delightful – Strange’s cloak is particularly wonderful. It’s a little bit of whimsical Disney in the serious superhero world, and it’s a real sign of this film’s willingness to challenge the norm for these films.

The thing about this plot is that, while it’s one that Marvel has done before, it’s one that they tend to do well. Strange is almost unbearably awful at the beginning of this film, and takes much longer to warm up to than other heroes of his kind. Even by the end of the film he hadn’t entirely won me over. Then again Cumberbatch’s inconsistent American accent doesn’t exactly help. But the film takes the time to examine his attitude and the way it affects the people around him, and it’s interesting in its treatment of him. More than most other MCU heroes, Strange really questions his own heroicism and the acts it requires of him; he doesn’t want to fight or kill, he wants to heal and learn. Far less interesting are Christine and Kaecilius. Aside from the amazing eye makeup, Kaecilius and his motivations are pretty interchangeable with any number of Marvel villains. Christine is a disappointment, because Rachel McAdams tries so hard to make her work, but she’s not a character. She’s a foil, an exposition machine, a disposable piece of plotting who is only around as long as it’s convenient. Cumberbatch and McAdams are both good, but they can’t sell the relationship, especially since it’s baffling as to what Christine sees in Strange. There’s also some serious issues with the whitewashing of the Ancient One. There’s no denying that Tilda Swinton is good, but there are plenty of equally brilliant Asian actresses who could have taken over the part; making her white and Celtic is defaulting to white as the norm, which is incredibly damaging. The rest of the major characters are all male, and mostly disposable; only Benedict Wong as, er, Wong really makes an impression. He’s a lot of fun against Strange. The film has a killer soundtrack, easily one of Marvel’s best. Keep an ear out for the awesome funky remix of the film’s main theme over the main credits as you wait for the two extra scenes, which you will want to wait for; despite its serious flaws, Doctor Strange is an exciting, compelling, and gorgeous entry into the Marvel canon.

Doctor Strange on IMDb

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