Our lives seem like a universe,
And yet they’re but a dot,
An inch upon a larger road,
An integer within the code,
A minute of an episode,
One tangle in a knot,
A drop within a mighty sea,
A twist within a tapestry,
The start of a soliloquy
We’ve barely even thought.
For how much larger must it seem
To One who knows its end.
Perhaps we’ll know the more we dream
And someday comprehend.
MPAA rating: PG-13
I love Marvel movies, and as much as I want to agree with most other reviewers that Doctor Strange is one of the best Marvel origin stories, I can’t quite bring myself to say it. Based on the visuals alone, it’s a cinematic wonder that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Storywise, I find my feelings similar to how I felt about last year’s widely loved blockbuster, namely Star Wars: The Force Awakens: I liked it a lot, but…. While most people don’t seem to mind the but, it necessarily tempers my praise.
What Doctor Strange gets right from the very beginning is Strange himself. Benedict Cumberbatch is so ideal for the role that I honestly cannot see anyone else donning the red cape. Early on, he essentially brings the same selfish arrogance of his Sherlock Holmes persona to the MCU, somehow making the audience feel invested in a conceited jerk of a surgeon. At first, he’s at the top of his field, but like Tony Stark and Thor before him, his vanity backfires. He’s humbled by one of the worst examples of distracted driving imaginable, and desperate to find healing, he journeys to Kamar-Taj in Nepal and discovers a more supernatural answer than he was expecting.
I do not belittle the visual mastery on display here, which I can best compare to Inception on steroids. After an initial confrontation between Kamar-Taj’s Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and rogue sorcerer Kaecilius, where an entire city block wraps up on itself, it seems like the visual effects team were holding back during Strange’s initiation, one or two psychedelic mind trips notwithstanding. Yet that was only so that they could go full-on bonkers when Kaecilius returns. Ignoring the fact that the actors are just waving their hands around in real life, it’s amazing how gravity, space, time, and perspective fluctuate with incredible ease, and it truly seems that images and actions are limited solely by the imagination. The time manipulation of the final battle is especially awe-inspiring, clever, and quite different from the typical explosive endings Marvel is known for.
What all these Oscar-deserving effects cover up, though, are some uninspired stock characters. I could see Tilda Swinton trying to make her Ancient One more engaging than a typical wise mentor type, but she only half succeeds, though her final scene does carry emotional weight. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Strange’s compatriot Mordo and Benedict Wong as a librarian named, uh, Wong barely made an impression on me since they too fell into the wise, solemn master stereotype, with not enough humor to escape it. Oddly, I’ve seen Rachel McAdams’s love interest getting most of the character criticism elsewhere, but I thought she filled her small supporting role quite nicely.
The script too falls a tad short, not only in the humor department that we’ve come to expect from Marvel, but in the preponderance of mystical mumbo-jumbo that I can only take half-seriously. I appreciate Christian director Scott Derrickson softening the main character’s occult roots (much like how Thor’s godhood was explained through extradimensional advancement), but a lot of the meaningful lines seem overly familiar, starting with the clichéd “Forget everything that you think you know.” My VC was vastly more negative than I, probably because the mumbo-jumbo caused her to tune out at times, since she couldn’t always keep up with all the names and spiritual terminology, not having any experience heretofore with Strange in the comics. I suspect watching Doctor Strange again with subtitles will improve her opinion and mine in time. (My MCU tastes are just different than most, I guess. My VC and I both immediately loved Ant-Man, but Guardians of the Galaxy took some warming up to. Give us time; we’ll love almost all of them eventually.)
Once again, this whole review feels like one big complaint, but I did indeed like Doctor Strange. I think it’s one of the weaker origin stories, but it has some excellent strengths going forward, especially Cumberbatch (who I really wish would meet Martin Freeman’s character from Civil War now that they’re both in the MCU). Also, despite disliking the weak or undeveloped reason behind one character’s falling out with Strange, I’m definitely excited for the possibilities that the two requisite after-credits scenes imply. Doctor Strange may not be among my favorite MCU chapters, but the groundwork that it lays gives me high hopes for the future.
Best line: (Kaecilius) “How long have you been in Kamar-Taj, Mister…?”
(Dr. Strange) “Doctor!”
(Kaecilius) “Mister Doctor?”
(Dr. Strange) “It’s Strange!”
(Kaecilius) “Maybe, who am I to judge?”
© 2016 S.G. Liput
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