Doctor Strange (****) cuts a few corners but is no less enjoyable

 

Dr. Strange – 2016

Director Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by John Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

We may be reaching a breaking point on guest stars in Marvel films. The talent in Dr. Strange is at once invigorating and frustrating. To find that Ejiofor plays Mordo gives a feeling of exhilaration for all of the possibility it represents. Then we find he’s limited in both personality and exposition to the point where it’s amazing that he could be considered the good Dr.’s primary nemesis throughout the series. It’s one thing to be parenthetical to future growth. It’s something else to be an afterthought.

Making Derrickson the choice to bring Dr. Strange to the screen was a gamble. He’s been up (Sinister) and mixed (nearly everything else) but never clearly gifted to the point of being a can’t miss. The Russo Brothers, James Gunn and even Peyton Reed show that Feige has the midas touch so far. The biggest problem for all of the Marvel films is that which affects all superhero films. Rinsed and repeatable plots and bad guys. The difference for the studio is that they have made Easter Egg plot devices an art form.

The penchant for future payoff is likely what they had in mind with Mordo. Even if that is the case, does it hurt the plot to make him more than a rule follower, or at least interesting at some level beyond right hand man to the Swinton’s Ancient One?

In all fairness, kudos to Feige for not bowing to public pressure in the casting choices of the director. The whitewashing anger movement in Hollywood makes about as much sense as complaining about the lack of diversity in Bollywood or within K Drama. Swinton is not my favorite actor, but her choice as the old wizened leader of Marvel’s mystic arts makes sense. Age, color, nationality, culture…how much of this stuff is rooted in magical mysticism? Once your soul departs your body, what does it matter the color?

For those who don’t know the story, Dr. Strange tells the story of an incredibly gifted surgeon who stupidly throws it all away while trying to look at x-rays in his car while passing on a two lane ocean road. The accident leaves his hands useless, but he refuses to acknowledge that his faith in Western Medicine can’t bring him back to his former glory.

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This eventually leads Strange to Kathmandu and to Mordo, Wong (Wong) and the Ancient One. The story makes it’s more interesting assumptions here. All time we take getting Strange from Tony Stark mode to “teach me” is 30 minutes, or about 1/3 into the running time. From here, Strange needs to train fast enough to get back to Sanctum Sanctorum and then find out about the bad guy Kaecilius (Mikkelson) and then fight him.

Whether or not it could be done efficiently, Derrickson is all over the map here.  The strangest aspect to this section is the loose comparison of Strange to the Ancient One’s other great student, Kaecilius. Strange is breezing through books with his photographic memory and soon enough, he’s Hermione Granger.

In the midst of his training, Strange wanders right past the regular magic books and grabs one of the Ancient One special editions. Strange learns that while no knowledge is forbidden, Kaecilius thought it juicy enough to steal a couple of pages out of one of the texts. Guess what Strange is going to go for next? Not before we see he has problems mastering the teleportation spell. One lesson at Everest cures him. Very soon thereafter, his training ends abruptly and we’re thrust into the last act of the film.

Kaecilius is an amalgam of bad guys from Marvel. In short strokes, he thinks that Ancient One is a hypocrite because it has access to something that is forbidden to others. The logic seems flawed, as there is a lot of information available and no one tending the library during crucial moments.

Mads is not here to have an original character. He’s here to put his original twist to a character we all know. It’s Mikkelson’s charisma that makes more than a match to Cumberbatch. The first matchup between the two is made more interesting for the apparent lack of preparation and sheer luck involved. Things happen that we don’t expect, yet they make sense while being beautifully timed. That it happens so soon in the arc of the hero’s’ journey adds to the freshness, even if it doesn’t make that much sense.

The way that confrontation ends should be the end to the story, but frustratingly and stupidly they allow for more exposition until…well, you’ll see.

Cumberbatch plays the titular character with less real nuance than one would expect. It doesn’t exactly hurt the character, because, come on, it’s about the magic at this point. We need to see him move from egotist, to coward to master magician. There should be learning with no hugging, and Cumberbatch can do this with plenty to spare. He’s more likable while being just as much of an ass. It will be fun to find out how far he takes strange in future installments.

The overwhelming feeling while watching Dr. Strange is that of fun. The effects, the tone and the frenetic pace astounds. There are no moments where the exposition outweighs forward story movement. It’s good on first viewing, better with second viewing.

If it can be considered a fault, we see too many characters that could be considered major for one installment. The lack of character development is more pronounced than it would be if it were a bunch of stormtroopers being dispatched. It’s not like Marvel has only one chance to get each of these sub-franchises right by this point. Okay, well, the Hulk doesn’t count. Maybe it’s representative of having the less established directors.  We know Feige’s been here before, though. Let the foot off the gas a bit.

(**** out of *****)

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