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Josh Reviews Doctor Strange

In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the incredibly skilled, and incredibly arrogant, neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange.  Strange is at the top of his field and he knows it.  But his privileged life falls apart after a terrible car accident leaves him unable to use his hands.  As the months go by and attempt after attempt to repair his hands using a variety of increasingly experimental medical procedures all fail, one after another, Strange grows ever-more desperate.  He eventually heads to Kathmandu, chasing a rumor of a man whose crippled legs were healed.  What he finds is a mysterious woman known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens Strange’s eyes to an entirely different way of looking at the world.  She also draws Strange into the widening conflict between the followers of her order, who consider themselves the protectors of the world from all manner of mystical threats, and an outcast named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) whose evil plans might have world-shattering repercussions.

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With Doctor Strange (as with last year’s Ant Man), Marvel has backed off of the increasing escalation of their super-hero films (best exemplified by the enormous superhero-battling-superhero epic Captain America: Civil War, a film I really loved) and gone back to what they did so well back in the early days of “Phase One” of their super-hero cinematic universe.  That is, tell a solid origin story of a new character.  Watching Doctor Strange reminded me very much of watching that first Captain America or Thor movie.  I wouldn’t hold up either of those films as the very best of what the Marvel cinematic universe has to offer.  But they are solidly entertaining films, perfectly cast, that take on the seemingly impossible task of bringing an outlandish comic-book character and world to life while making it all look incredibly easy.  Doctor Strange does all of those things.

Let’s start with the perfect casting, because once again Marvel has absolutely nailed, and I mean nailed, the casting of another of their classic heroes.  Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play Dr. Strange, and when he is finally decked out in full Dr. Strange attire at the end of the film (including that classic cape and even the Eye of Agamotto), he looks absolutely perfect.  (I cannot wait to see Cumberbatch’s Strange meet his “facial-hair brother”, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.)  Mr. Cumberbatch is able to nail Strange’s fierce intelligence and his hauteur, but also allow us to see his nobility and his strength.  In the comics, Dr. Strange is one of the moral pillars of the Marvel Universe, and Mr. Cumberbach takes us there by the end of the film.  (After all the hubub over how the recent DC films have shown their heroic characters killing villains, I loved the scene late in this film in which we see how distraught Strange becomes when he is forced to kill one of Kaecilius’ hench-men, even though the goon had it coming.)

This film has been hit with a lot of criticism of “white-washing” for the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, and while I certainly see the point of those critics, I also think that Ms. Swinton is magnificent and a brilliant piece of casting.  She brings such an otherworldly weirdness to the role, such grace mixed with a twinkle of humor, to a role that could easily have been a boring reiteration of the old wise mentor cliche.  Instead, Ms. Swinton gives this character a different spin, playing the Ancient One with an almost childlike sense of wonder and blunt honesty.  I love it.  Her final scene in the film, watching the snow fall, is magnificent.

Chiwetel Ejiofor made a big impact on my soul with his role in Serenity, and I have been following his work with great attention ever since.  He is a great “get” for this super-hero film, and he is absolutely terrific as Mordo, a student of the Ancient One.  Mr. Ejiofor brings tremendous gravitas to every one of his roles, a quality that serves the movie well for the way that Mr. Ejiofor is able to help ground some of the film’s increasingly crazy developments.  (I also love listening to the way he says the name Kaecilius.  It’s a name that looks ridiculous on paper but sounds glorious coming out of Mr. Ejiofor’s mouth.)

Speaking of which, Mads Mikkelsen is delicious as the villain Kaecilius.  Mr. Mikkelsen keeps the character very quiet and contained, which is a nice reversal of one’s usual expectations for a scenery-chewing villain.  I wish we understood better just what Kaecilius expects to happen if Earth is given over to Dormammu and the Dark Dimension; that would have allowed me to better see the character’s point of view, which would have strengthened his story.  But while the film doesn’t do that, you can see in Mr. Mikkelsen’s performance that he doesn’t see himself as the villain, which is perfect for the character.

Benedict Wong (so great in The Martian) is tremendous here as the (coincidentally named) Wong.  In the comics, Wong is Strange’s faithful manservant.  I like how they have reinvented the character here as the quiet and wise keeper of the knowledge in the Ancient One’s library.  I like the way his relationship with Strange grows as the movie progresses.

Rachel McAdams doesn’t have much to do as Strange’s sort-of love-interest Dr. Christine Palmer.  But Ms. McAdams makes the most of her thinly-written part.  (And I am thankful that the movie doesn’t put her in jeopardy in the third act!!  Well done.)  I would love to see more of her character in a future film.

I enjoyed seeing how enthusiastically the filmmakers embraced some of the weirder aspects of the magical mythology of Dr. Strange, best exemplified in the comics by the mind-bending work of Steve Ditko.  I’m not sure the film quite ever reaches the mind-blowing heights I think the filmmakers were aspiring to, but nevertheless I enjoyed the film’s depictions of the many, increasingly bizarre, magical and improbable worlds and universes beyond our own.  I never expected to see the dread Dormammu depicted on screen, and I love that the film went there.  I quite liked the way Dormammu and the Dark Dimension were realized.

The visual effects in the film are spectacular.  I loved the Inception-like fights that take place on the shifting, folding-in-on-themselves cityscapes,.  I loved the way they depicted magic in the film, not just using bright glowy lights but actually depicting runes and objects in space, giving the magic a reality and a texture that looked cool and also felt “real,” even though that is a weird word to use to describe magic.  I also loved the costume design in the film.  As I mentioned before, Strange looks perfect, and I also really dug the look of all of the Ancient Ones’ followers, and of Kaecilius and his minions.

The challenge in telling this story if Dr. Strange’s origin is in making this story feel different than that of Tony Stark’s, another wealthy, brilliant, and arrogant goateed man who also loses everything and has to learn to think beyond himself and become a super-hero.  It is a weakness of Doctor Strange that the film’s central character arc does feel somewhat familiar.  But it works, primarily because of how great Benedict Cumberbatch is, and also because of the way Mr. Cumberbatch plays Strange as far colder and more aloof than the fun-loving Tony Stark.  And, although it’s subtle, Strange’s arc of learning that the world doesn’t revolve around him is different than Tony Stark’s origin (which ends with him at the center of a press conference announcing, “I am Iron Man”).  Tony ends his origin making himself public before the world.  Strange ends his origin alone in a house, having agreed to act in secret to protect the world from threats most people will hopefully never know about.  So this works for me.

What doesn’t work for me is the film’s time travel ending.  AARGH I absolutely hate how many big-budget adventure movies use this same stupid  “get out of jail free card” time travel device.  I hated it in Superman: The Movie, I hated it in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I hate it whenever they do it in Star Trek, and on and on.

(OK, beware SPOILERS from this point in, gang.)

I do like the “time loop” trick that Strange plays on Dormammu.  That was a nice twist.  And the characters fighting in Hong Kong while also having to dodge the repairing-itself city was fun.  But I hate that the film allows Dr. Strange to reverse the laws of nature and physics and use time travel to reverse Kaecilius’ victory (his destruction of the final sanctum and massacre of the Ancient One’s followers, thus allowing Dormammu to gain control of Earth).  This is bad storytelling in the short-term, because the “resent button” totally deflates any dramatic tension that had been built up beforehand.  And it is bad story-telling in the long-term, because once you’ve seen your characters use time travel to erase a defeat, how can there ever be tension in any future story?  We know they can just do the same thing again to get out of any future problem!  Mordo warns Strange that there is always a bill that will come due for such rash actions, but we never actually see that in the film.  Strange gets off scott free, without any negative consequences for his actions.  (Just as Superman is totally fine reversing time to save Lois in Superman: The Movie, despite all the warnings fro Jor-El that such actions would be disastrous.)  We needed to actually SEE some consequences in THIS movie (not a future sequel) in which Strange would suffer somehow for his actions in rewriting time.  But no, the film doesn’t give us that, everything is magically OK with no negative impact, and that weakens the ending of the film for me.

Other comments:

I love the film’s interpretation of Dr. Strange’s iconic cape.  Making the cape sentient (I have read it compared to the magic carpet in Aladdin) was a great idea.

I loved seeing that iconic weird window in Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum.  And I loved hearing the words “Sanctum Sanctorum” spoken aloud in a big-budget live-action movie!!

Michael Giacchino’s score was strong.  (Though what was up with that weird, out-of-place crescendo in the film’s final moments before the end credits?)  I loved the arrangement of the main theme over the end credits.  (Though I think I saw a credit noting that that was arranged by someone else, so maybe Mr. Giacchino shouldnt get credit for that?)  I need to watch the film again to pay better attention to the score.  I have been complaining for years that the Marvel films have totally dropped the ball in failing to give their character recognizable and easily hummable musical themes, and while I enjoyed the end credit music I don’t recall those themes being so noticeable in the film itself.  Still, kudos to Marvel for hiring Mr. Giacchino, one of the best composers working today, to score this film.

The end-credits stingers have been a little weak in the last few Marvel films, but both scenes in Doctor Strange were solid.  I really loved the mid-credits sequence between Strange and Thor.  This looks like an actual scene from the up-coming Thor: Ragnarok.  I didn’t know that Dr. Strange would be in that film, so this really excited me!  I liked the scene’s somewhat comedic tone, which bodes well for Ragnarok, which is being directed by Taika Waititi, who has a strong comedic bent.  (Just watch this short film showing what Thor was up to during Civil War!)  (I also noticed Strange’s gloves in that scene, don’t think I didn’t!)

The final post-credits scene is a little more of a mixed bag.  The scene itself is good, and depicts a very significant moment in that we see Mordo cross a line.  (Sigh.  With a name like Mordo you knew he’d eventually become a villain, even if you knew nothing about the comics!)  But I’m not sure I love the idea of Doctor Strange following in the footsteps of Green Lantern.  (That film also had a famous villain, Sinestro, play a heroic role in the film until an end-credits reveal that showed him turning evil.)  At least this film plants the seeds for Mordo’s turn in the movie (as opposed to Green Lantern where that mid-credits turn to evil was completely out of left field based on what we had seen in the film itself).  But still, I feel the movie short-changed Mordo’s turn to evil.  I wanted to see more of the conflict within him before showing this formerly heroic dude turn evil.  Oh well.

The Stan Lee cameo was another home run.

Did they mention The Living Tribunal?  Oh yes they did!!  Love it!

I thoroughly enjoyed Doctor Strange.  This isn’t a ground-breaking, peak super-hero film like I found Captain America: Civil War to be, but I am very much OK with that.  I love that Marvel is stepping back to introduce and develop some new characters here in “Phase Three”.  Once again, they make it look so easy.  I never thought to see Dr. Strange brought to life on screen, let alone in so faithful a manner.  I am hugely impressed.  This film is everything I wanted it to be.  I can’t wait to see it again, and I can’t wait for future films to carry through on the promise of that Strange-Thor mid-credits tease and bring Dr. Strange into the wider world of the Marvel cinematic universe.  Score another success for the seemingly unbeatable Marvel.

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