Doctor Strange (2016)

Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

Welcome to perhaps the most A-list cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelson and Tilda Swinton are all crazy big names that never would have flown in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Surely they would have been changed to Ben Batch, Charles Elijah, Madison Michaels, and, well, Tilda Swinton actually sounds old Hollywood. The point being, the Marvel films have traditionally been a jumping off point to make actors into A-listers. Robert Downey Jr. returned to A list fame after Iron Man, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth became household names after Captain America and Thor. With Doctor Strange, one of the lesser known Marvel properties, the A-listers have come out to play, making a huge impact on the Marvel world. Perhaps the studio’s decision to cast acclaimed, albeit lesser known to the mainstream, stars in the lead roles was a ploy to get those less familiar with the character into the seats, and maybe even to get those film buffs less than enthused by the recent super hero phenomenon there too.

These movies make tons of money, it doesn’t matter. There will be those who say they don’t like super hero movies, but as I said above, they’ll still show up for Cumberbatch, et al. There are those who won’t know Doctor Strange, but they’ll show up too, even though he is an arrogant asshole of a character. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a first rate surgeon in New York City, and he knows it. Lording above his fellow doctors Nic (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Christine (Rachel McAdams), who is also a love interest, Doctor Strange is a prick. But when a car accident wrecks his hands, his tools for success, Strange becomes depressed. When physical therapy fails, he turns to the mystical Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and her “cult” of mystics (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong), but soon becomes wrapped up in the doomsday plotting of the Ancient One’s former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson).

In terms of origin stories, particularly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is fairly middle of the road, though it’s a very nice road (considering Marvel’s successful history). Strange is not a likable character in any way really, other than his genius. Yet Cumberbatch imbues him with such a swagger that the trainwreck is kind of fun to watch at times. Similar to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man, Strange doesn’t quite have the fun loving nature of Stark, nor the deep down soft heart that pines to save the world. Once he gets wrapped up into the world of magic, once he gives himself over to the Ancient One’s fairy tale in which he didn’t initially believe, Strange starts to become a better man. This transformation is noble, though also somewhat predictable and also a story arc which is fairly well trodden.

What Doctor Strange really has going for it is that it is so different from anything else that Marvel has done before. I said the same thing about Ant Man because it felt smaller, and more like a heist movie than a super hero movie, but Doctor Strange isn’t small, it’s quite literally magic. I had my hesitations when it came to expectations for how Marvel would incorporate this story into the real world and more importantly into the over arching Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. With the use of some stellar special effects, the filmmakers manage to create a world all its own within the film which is both beautiful and jaw dropping and also quite convincing for the story being told. The world building is quite good here and sets the stage for what is potentially to come with the franchise. I was also pleasantly surprised at how The Avengers are mentioned, to tie Strange into the greater world, but are also kept quite separate throughout. As a character mentions in the film, the Avengers deal with the physical world whereas Strange and his cohorts deal in the metaphysical.

What makes the film work so well is the cast. From top to bottom they are convincing in an otherwise unbelievable world, which goes a long way in selling the magic of Doctor Strange. In typical Marvel fashion, comedy, and at times ironic comedy, also plays a part in the enjoyment of the film. There are multiple quips and fun interplay between characters which make the rather hokey (magic isn’t real) and yet dark and bleak narrative light enough to fit within the MCU as well as be a fun time learning about new characters and how they fit into this world. As a stand alone film, Doctor Strange is a solid outing and worthy addition to the MCU. As a part of the larger initiative, it shows great potential for where the character and world might go in future installments and crossovers, which is the perfect indicator that this is a successful, promising, and entertaining comic book movie.

*** – Very Good

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