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Film Review: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016; Directed by Scott Derrickson)

You will see things while watching Doctor Strange that you have not seen on a movie screen before, but that isn’t to say that the film will surprise you in any way. Its narrative beats, themes, characters, and representational problems are all factory-issue Marvel Studios blockbuster archetypes, even while it features several sequences that profoundly boggle and astound the mind’s eye, leaving it pleasantly disoriented. If only such inventive disorientation could be applied to the plot and thematic elements as well.

The titular character is an arrogant, ambitious neurosurgeon who becomes a slightly less arrogant but no less ambitious transdimensional mystical sorcerer tasked with the protection of Earth from dark threats from the multiverse. If this doesn’t describe a Benedict Cumberbatch character to the letter, I don’t know how much closer an alternate description could get, and the genuine article obliges by bringing characteristic dedication and attention to detail to the role, fluff though it may be. Cumberbatch also adds a general tone of bemusement and ironic lightness to Dr. Stephen Strange (also a fairly characteristic mode for him). As an actor, Cumberbatch is well above such pulpy multiplex material as Doctor Strange, and he manages nimbly to signal that he knows it while never once slighting or undermining the film which he is tasked to carry.

Stephen Strange makes his unusual career change not precisely out of choice. So masterful at neurosurgery as to consider it practically a lark, Strange can no longer take his mastery for granted after a brutal car crash severely damages his skilled hands (and pretty much nothing else, which is a little unbelievable given the furious, dramatic depiction of the crash). After bankrupting himself looking for a medical fix and still finding himself no closer to being able to return to operating, the implacably rational Strange follows a desperate lead to Kathmandu, Nepal and to the mystical temple of Kamar-Taj. There, his scientific scepticism is challenged and finally overthrown by the mind-blowing magical spellcasting powers of the Ancient One (a wondrously dry Tilda Swinton). Before you can say “orientalism”, Strange is learning the secrets of the astral plane, mystical projection, martial arts, and ancient relics of power, his arrogant self-possession pushing him further and deeper into the mysteries of the multiverses and beyond the limits and warnings of the Ancient One, temple librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), and fellow master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Before he’s anything approaching a master of these magical arts, Dr. Strange (like any self-respecting physician, he ever insists upon the spoken title, even when being invested as a friggin’ astral wizard) must contend with the rogue zealot master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). The villain of the piece is first seen in the memorable opening sequence of the film, stealing pages from a prized tome of knowledge in Kamar-Taj’s library and escaping the Ancient One despite a battle on the streets and buildings of London as they fold, rotate, and rise, plane-over-plane, like a memorable scene in Inception. Kaecilius is in league with a malevolent being of the Dark Dimension known as Dormammu and seeks to overthrow the Ancient One’s order (marked by a stylized symbol highly reminiscent of a basketball team logo) and unleash his dark lord’s unspeakable all-consuming power on Earth. Which, you know, is probably not good, but like the Trump Presidency, maybe we can give it a chance and hope for the best (spoiler: not a good plan, in either case).

Like most Marvel Studios efforts, Doctor Strange strikes a fine balance between respecting and imparting the core of its source material and poking fun at its pulpy pomposity. The fanciful names of the relics (eg. the Eye of Agamotto, which turns time back like the Time-Turner of Harry Potter or the magic dagger of Prince of Persia and has considerable plot implications, as might be expected) come in for a bit of ridicule by Strange, who never quite loses his rational disdain for mysticism and superstition even as he becomes a seasoned practitioner of its force. Strange’s own key relic, the crimson Cloak of Levitation, is mostly played for laughs, indeed constituting a comic relief character of its own. The mostly-thankless supporting love interest role of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also allows for some moments of levity, drawing on the established Marvel movie tradition of ordinary people being alarmed, frightened, and amazed by displays of superhero powers.

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s continuous sequence of films, practically all of this can be assumed and go generally undiscussed, mind you. There isn’t a big plot or thematic or character beat that cannot be seen coming miles away, and the Marvel and Disney focus-grouped unwillingness to vary the formula is becoming mildly alienating. This undercurrent of predictability is unfortunate, because when director Scott Derrickson really lets loose with trippy kaleidoscopic magnificence in his action sequences, Doctor Strange looks and feels like a laboratory of the unpredictable, a petri-dish of CGI possibility. If the opening scene in London, with its white brick facades unfurling like time-lapsed flowers in bloom, wasn’t enough, Derrickson shows the Ancient One blasting through Strange’s smug Cartesian empiricism with a stunning whirlwind tour of the astral spheres that is like 2001 on amphetamines. Even this is a mere warm-up for Kaecilius and his minions chasing Strange, Mordo, and eventually the Ancient One through a mirror-universe Manhattan that folds, loops, and ripples into confusing forms like an enhanced M.C. Escher print in full bewildering motion.

Doctor Strange offers such wonders alongside its quotidian filmmaking formulas and they are appreciated. There’s even a limited Mobius Strip element to Strange’s plan to neutralize the unfathomable power of Dormammu that hints at the perception-shifting nature of the visual construction bleeding into the screenplay as well. But what could very easily have been Marvel’s first big-screen mindfuck movie keeps the psychedelic weirdness parceled out in manageable portions, serving them carefully between more safely-proven material. This tendency, in combination with the film’s softening and avoiding but not overturning of the original comics’ orientalist stereotypes, leads Doctor Strange to a place of uninspiring competence rather than challenging mind-opening.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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