'Doctor Strange' Review

Photo Credit: Marvel Studios
3.5

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone across galaxies, different realms and into civil war, but Doctor Strange takes it past the bounds of reality itself. Yet some of the same old MCU rules remain, namely that hiring the right people can sell just about anything. In this case, they can sell disorienting visuals, mystical mumbo jumbo, breaking visual barriers much more than narrative ones, and the idea that the MCU still has some tricks up its sleeve even after 14 films.

Far away from the realm of the Avengers, and away from even more hidden worlds, Stephen Strange is the greatest surgeon in New York and makes sure no one else ever forgets it. But when his healing hands are shattered in a car crash, so is Strange himself as he spirals in desperation for a cure. His last hope takes him to Nepal, where he discovers that a being called the Ancient One holds the key to greater power beyond fixing hands, and in fact has powers that stretch beyond time, space and our very dimension. But as the Ancient One and fellow masters Mordo and Wong teach Strange to harness the magic of the multiverse, a former pupil named Kaecilius plots to merge all worlds into the darkest dimension of them all.

Almost no one has reviewed Doctor Strange without using the words "mind-bending" "trippy" or "psychedelic" to describe its visual tricks. Disorienting is more fitting at first, as it dives right into a reality bending action scene without any explanation, context or warning. In truth, it actually paints an ominous picture at the onset, making it look like there will be no way to follow or understand such lunacy without enhanced influences.

Once Stephen Strange is then introduced playing a few catchy tunes on his phone while performing surgery, it seems like a move straight out of Guardians of the Galaxy. Between the initial bizarre action and this quasi rip off of a past Marvel hit, Doctor Strange doesn't really get off on the right foot in the first few minutes. The usual Marvel critics may argue that the next 15-20 minutes aren't much better, as they repeat an old formula of an arrogant man losing his former powers and getting put on the path to a greater one, like Iron Man and Thor before him.

Marvel has gotten away with repeating these narratives for years, thanks mainly to humor and casting. Doctor Strange leans on the latter more than most, particularly when it comes to Benedict Cumberbatch.

While Cumberbatch is an Oscar nominee and is beloved by various sections of the Internet, there was reason to doubt his casting, and not just because they chose yet another straight white man as the leading hero again. Cumberbatch has mainly been villains in blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness and the Hobbit films, has been typecast as arrogant super geniuses as far back as TV's Sherlock, and is saddled with an American accent here even after his dodgy Southern and Boston ones in 12 Years A Slave and Black Mass. Marvel's winning streak in casting leading heroes will have to end sometime, and this seemed like as good a place as any for it to happen.

But as it turns out, it's not Marvel's time yet to get this stuff wrong. In fact, Cumberbatch is the exact anchor Doctor Strange needs to ground it while it sorts itself out. Even the lack of his usual British accent isn't as distracting as it first appears, as Cumberbatch sells his one-liners, semi-justified cockiness and a desperate downward spiral regardless. Fortunately, he isn't just rehashing Sherlock, The Imitation Game's Alan Turing or the likes of Khan or Smaug, which not only helps win over early skeptics of himself, but of the movie as a whole.

The real value of Cumberbatch and Strange comes when they head to Nepal, and when the movie goes back to head-scratching visual madness. Whereas there was no anchor or grounding element to ease us into the introduction of magic, seeing it through the perplexed and blown away eyes of Strange makes it much easier to digest. It also helps that his initial trip through the dimensions of time and space is legitimately eye popping.

Once Doctor Strange has Strange as our avatar to comprehend these new worlds, to react with skepticism and growing awe, and to play off his teachers as they ease him and us into the multiverse, everything starts falling into place. Marvel movies are always at their best when a team of characters banter and work together, and it is no different here even in different plains of reality.

There may still be limits to how seriously one can take all this, with all the dimensional merging and the use of items like a "sling ring." Distracting us with maddening visuals, Oscar nominees/winners working off each other, and the usual Marvel comic relief may have its limits.

But as always, Marvel throws everything except the kitchen sink to drown out any nitpicking in the moment, although this is one very different looking kitchen. Whether the new decorations are enough to hide the same old blueprints and MCU formula deep down may vary for viewers, as they usually do by now.

Still, once the visuals go from confusing to slightly more comprehensible in the first half, they are finally ready to become full on stunning in the second. After Strange and his lessons help put the movie's trippier concepts onto more solid ground, it becomes much easier to appreciate their demented wonder when director Scott Derrickson really turns them loose.

Strange's first battle with Kaecilius and his forces goes from an Inception homage/rip off into something bigger, particularly when the Cloak of Levitation is introduced and when one fight becomes a battle of auras. But that is a mere warm up compared to when the fighting expands in the Mirror Dimension, where the Inception level merging of multiple New Yorks in the trailers come from. Yet even those trailer shots didn't do any of it justice in the slightest.

While that sequence is the big visual calling card of the whole movie, the finale is nothing to shrug at either, overcoming the usual 'save the world' formula with sheer imagination and force of will. Even the final solution is different from the usual Marvel norm, if not to the exact extent that Captain America: Civil War’s last act was.

Through these massive sequences, there really doesn’t seem to be any limit for Derrickson or Marvel. It is a hard fought process to have this insanity make sense, or at least to make it more thrilling and stunning than confusing and too out there for its own good. Yet in the end, the process really does pay off, and perhaps is even more rewarding for overcoming such early doubts.

However, none of it would stand a chance without the people in all these realms. That is usually the case for most Marvel movies, yet it is especially the case here, since the often thin script needs everything these actors have to sell it, their characters and the dimensions around them. Cumberbatch is the most important example, but far from the only one.

After all the backlash over Tilda Swinton playing an Ancient One who was non-white, Asian and male in the comics, there may have been no way for even Swinton to drown out the charges of whitewashing. But she comes as close as possible, as her delivery, amusement, teachings, secrets and clashes with Strange make the ends of getting Swinton into the MCU nearly justify the means. In fact, a case can be made that she isn’t involved as much as she should be.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo starts out in a very different place than what he became in the comics. Yet as time goes on, Mordo’s path becomes the film’s other origin story, with Ejiofor paying immediate and powerful dividends now while teasing what is likely to come later. The same can likely be said of Benedict Wong as Wong too, as he is set for more responsibilities alongside Strange later, after mainly having a stone faced running gag here.

Being a virtual teaser for future films can be a thankless job in the short term, but it is nothing compared to the thanklessness of being a Marvel villain or love interest most of the time. To that end, Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams get the short end of the stick, yet they are still more primary examples of how the right casting can bail out any role. McAdams is a far bigger reason to justify Christine Palmer’s existence than almost anything in the script, while Mikkelsen’s usual brand of evil uplifts a villain who’s more deluded than anything else.

While Doctor Strange is supposed to be the beginning of an expanded MCU, it is also the end of the 2016 superhero season in general, and not just for Marvel. Six comic book movies came out in this historic year, and it either speaks well to Marvel Studios, speaks poorly of the rest of the superhero genre or both that the MCU has two of the only three good ones in 2016.

Doctor Strange is probably the most unlikely of the good ones, even more so than Deadpool and certainly more than Captain America: Civil War. If it wasn’t for the visuals eventually rounding into form, and if it wasn’t for Cumberbatch, Swinton, Ejiofor and the cast, it would surely be a much different story.

Stephen Strange has to overcome a lot of skepticism and a lack of an open mind before he can embrace his destiny. Doctor Strange as a whole takes the same path, slowly but surely transforming from a movie that really shouldn’t work at all into one that finally masters a new dimension of the MCU.

It really isn’t a triumph against all odds, given Marvel’s track record and its too big to fail status. The likes of Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man were much more unlikely success stories, and perhaps had a greater payoff. Yet thanks to Cumberbatch anchoring Doctor Strange through early rough patches, and thanks to the rest of the elements and actors catching up to him later, a payoff does still come.