Overview: Brilliant surgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange, loses the use of his hands in a car accident and, when medicine can’t repair him, heads to Kathmandu to see if there might be a more spiritual cure. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 115 minutes.
The Eye: Doctor Strange is the first visually gorgeous MCU movie. While the others have always been well put together (some better than others), they have never really pushed the boundaries of what cinema can accomplish. Even the Thor movies have been pretty tame in their depiction of Asgard, when really when showing a fictional world the only limit is your imagination. Strange’s huge special effects sequences are unlike anything I’ve ever seen… or sort of like some things I’ve seen but bigger. Scott Derrickson has really gone big, making scenes that could be rote and cliché into images that really shake you out of your seat and slap a smile on your face. In this movie a chase through New York isn’t simply people dodging pedestrians and weaving through traffic, it’s the city through a kaleidoscope, the buildings folding and falling through the floor. Every fight scene recalling the Inception hallway scene with a constant shifting of walls becoming floors and floors becoming ceilings. It is to Derrickson’s credit that among this swirling, physics defying world there is always a keen sense of where the characters are and what they are doing.
Story: The plot of Doctor Strange is a mix of a White savior story with a Chosen One element packaged in a superhero origin story. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins the movie as an arrogant, brilliant surgeon and, after a car accident, loses the use of his hands. After he spends all of his money trying to have medicine fix him he is sent to Kathmandu in search of mystical Kamar-Taj, a place of healing. At Kamar-Taj he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Wong (Benedict Wong), and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), three sorcerers sworn to protect the world from an multi-dimensional evil and its zealots led by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson).
Thankless Roles and Whitewashing: It is with the two female roles that the film stumbles. Rachel McAdams plays Doctor Palmer, Strange’s ex, and McAdams really doesn’t get much to do except look shocked at Strange’s magic and tell him off when he’s a dick. She’s not a love interest really, and luckily she never becomes a damsel in distress, but her character never has any real agency outside of helping Strange in his story, and seems to only exist to stand around in the hospital until he needs her.
Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is the cryptic mentor role which should have gone to an Asian actress. It’s cool that the creators gender-swapped the role because this movie is in dire need of more female characters, but Asian actresses exist. I could list some of them but my word count doesn’t go that high. The creators dropped the ball with this casting and dropped it harder trying to wriggle out from underneath it. There has been a lot written about this subject by more knowledgeable people than myself and if I was you I would check some of them out here and here.
The Boys: Benedict Cumberbatch is a great Stephen Strange, channeling his Sherlock character into a lot of the role, something that the filmmakers occasionally lean into replacing Sherlock’s high collared coat with a levitating cloak and mirroring some of the BBC show’s musical cues. Cumberbatch is getting a bit of a reputation for playing anti-social geniuses with Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing, and now Strange. It is a testament to his charm that he manages to sell these characters and make them beloved. Chiwetel Ejiofor goes Shakespearean for his role as Mordo. He has a lot of exposition to espouse so he does it with the bearing of a man soliloquising at the Globe, lots of big, enunciated words delivered towards the back of the room. Benedict Wong plays the stoic librarian, Wong, and gets some great comedic moments. Its also nice to see his role expanded from the comics where he is Strange’s manservant, whereas here they fight together. Finally, Mads Mikkelson’s Kaecilius isn’t going to be a villain for the ages (and what MCU villains are?) but Mads relishes in villainy. He is intimidating and seems to be having a great time tormenting Strange and his band of sorcerers.
Overall: Dr. Strange is a visually fantastic film that manages to be something truly unique within the MCU. Broken down, the plot is standard hero origin stuff, but the presentation is where it soars. So many times during this movie the audience I saw it with gasped or made noises like they were on a roller coaster. The cast is fantastic even when they have nothing to do or should have been played by Michelle Yeoh, and I look forward to Doctor Strange 2 pushing at the boundaries further and seeing what other magic they are capable of.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures