Many film fans roll their eyes when yet another comic hero origin film comes around. It’s a well worn formula that often becomes repetitive. The hero goes through some sort of tragedy, they recover and triumph over a great evil.
Doctor Strange has a familiar narrative, but makes just the right interesting tweaks to make this comic book film uniquely fun. It has its problems, but this is one of the most unique Marvel film to date. From its astoundingly psychedelic visuals, witty humor and an outstanding cast portraying atypical characters, Doctor Strange successfully introduces Marvel’s most unique hero yet.
The film follows Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but arrogant surgeon whose hands are crippled by a horrific car accident. Journeying to the Far East in search of a way to heal his hands, he finds the secretive Kamar-Taj and its leader the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). There, he discovers a war waged in secret and a mystical world with multiverses, astral planes and sorcerers.
Visually, Doctor Strange is stunning. The trailers only scratched the surface as the visuals become more and more inventive. Early in the film, The Ancient One literally flings Strange through the different dimensions in the world like a crazed acid trip. It perfectly sets up the rest of the film, preparing us for a crazy journey.
The action sequences will look familiar to fans of Inception‘s infamous hallway scene, though the set pieces here are more CGI heavy. But they are fun nonetheless, featuring more choreographed fights and magic. The CGI is so well done that it never feels over done and the shifting environments add a cool wrinkle to the fights.
While some might discount the visual style as a simple distraction to hide a pedestrian origin story, but that would be a mistake. While the narrative doesn’t hold many surprises, there are enough deviations from the norm to make it compelling.
It should come as no surprise that Doctor Strange has a sense of humor, though the amount of humor is a bit surprising. There are some laugh out loud moments and all of them feel earned. Marvel gets a bit of a bad rap when it comes to its use of humor, but Director Scott Ericksson finds that happy balance between the grave, world threatening stakes and the need to make his audience laugh.
One of my favorite aspects of the narrative is the way it ends. Obviously, I will not give away the ending, but some might be disappointed by the conclusion. But I thought it is perfect and a subtly cool way to continue the evolution of Strange as a character in this universe.
Cumberbatch is great as usual as Strange, bringing a surprising amount of humor to the role. The character is an arrogant jerk from the opening minutes, but you still manage to like him due to his sense of humor. At the same time, Strange has a convincing sense of justice and a belief that violence is not always the answer.
Like many other characters in this world, Strange uses his intellect to solve his problems. The “final fight” is a refreshing change from other Marvel films as Strange comes up with a unique plan to foil the villain. Cumberbatch gives the character the right amount of conviction and wit to make the plan convincing.
That said, Strange and his fast wit can be a little too reminiscent of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark. Cumberbatch’s American accent is also a little distracting at times. This is more of a nitpick, but it feels like his accent is a little too “affected” at times. In the more emotional times the accent is fine, but in some of the quieter moments it’s obviously fake.
Tilda Swinton is quite entertaining as The Ancient One, managing to mix a sense of conviction with an impish glee at the trials she puts Strange through. Besides Cumberbatch, she seems to be the actor having the most fun at her role. She is also a bad ass in a fight.
As far as the issue of “white washing” is concerned, the film goes out of its way to point out that this Ancient One is Celtic and is only the latest in a number Ancient Ones. Swinton never acts as an Asian stereotype as well. It would be hard to see anyone else in the role, but as an Asian American, I still have mixed feelings about a white actress playing a part usually portrayed as Asian.
This is especially troubling when the only Asian character in a film espousing Asian philosophy is Wong (Benedict Wong) who rarely speaks. He gets a few laughs, including some of the biggest in the film, but he is never seen fighting. He is a person of authority who rarely uses it.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is intense as Mordo, one of the sorcerers serving the Ancient One. There is a simmering fire underneath the calm exterior and Ejiofor portrays him as a man seemingly ready to explode at any minute. The character is also intriguing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though elaborating would spoil the film. Suffice it to say, a long running problem in the Marvel films may have been solved.
Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) makes for a threatening villain, though he doesn’t stand out too much. While the character isn’t bland, he’s really not that interesting either. Most of his back story is given by the other characters, though this isn’t a surprise given that most Marvel films are mostly character studies of their central heroes.
Unfortunately, Rachel McAdams continues a problem with the Marvel Universe’s leading ladies. She is completely wasted in the role of love interest Christine Palmer, which is a little pointless. While she and Cumberbatch have cute chemistry, their relationship never feels real.
Doctor Strange is a huge leap for Marvel. There is a lot new and imaginative ideas thrown around and the sense of exasperation and wonder that Strange experiences will probably be reflected in its audience. But that “strange” story shouldn’t be dismissed easily and the film will reward a patient viewer looking for something familiar but different in all the right ways.
SCORE: 8 OUT OF 10