The comic-book movie trend could have seen its first “failure” with last year’s troubled production of Ant-Man, centered around the arguably ridiculous superpower of shrinking to the size of an insect. Instead, the writers decided to double down on its ridiculousness and replace the serious, brooding hero for a wise-cracking thief and his ensemble of comedic criminals, resulting in another commercial success. The following Marvel movie, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, included half the cast of the previous “Avengers” film, while also introducing new characters to the cinematic universe, showering audiences with action and drama that delighted fans across the globe. However, after the dismal critical reception of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, the pressure was on for Marvel Studios’ fourteenth feature film to fight the looming superhero fatigue with something a little “Strange”.
Fortunately, Doctor Strange takes the traditional Marvel origin story and gives it a fantastic facelift to reinvigorate the genre. The visuals, the cast and the tone are all unique enough to make the film feel like it is a stand-alone feature, while the occasional cameo still reminds fans that this is indeed apart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just like Guardians of the Galaxy, those who were not familiar with Doctor Strange before walking in to this movie will leave the theater swearing they have been life long fans (Having only been exposed to Strange through his appearances in the Spider-Man 1994 animated series, I had no idea what the character stood for other than weird things would always happen whenever he shows up).
The film follows the similar story pattern as the original Iron Man: Strange, a talented, award winning surgeon, is arrogant and must undergo a series of trials before realizing the error of his selfish ways and becomes a hero to defeat a villain who possesses similar powers. Come to think of it, that’s the same plot as Ant-Man as well. And Starlord’s story arc in Guardians. And even The Incredible Hulk to some extent. Point is, most Marvel movies follow this “safe” formula and it is beginning to show. What saves Strange from being too familiar is the solid cast of talented actors that invest their all into their characters and the amazing visual effects that blow away every other Marvel movie before it. Sure, there have been comparisons to Batman Begins and Inception based off what’s been shown in trailers (I mean, if you had to copy from another director, Nolan is an excellent choice…), but Strange brings straight up magic to the screen and turns every scene into a kaleidoscope of colors. As soon as the character known as the “Ancient One” comes in to show Strange what forces exist beyond his understanding, we are taken on a 3-D acid trip that’s part 2001: A Space Odyssey and part whatever results from creating a tie dye shirt incorrectly due to breathing in spray paint fumes. It is definitely something we have never seen before from Marvel, and opens up a universe of endless possibilities for the rest of the Marvel universe.
Aside from some questionable shaky-cam, the action is fast-paced and the hand-to-hand combat is greatly enhanced by the magic effects, though don’t expect to see Harry Potter levels of wand-blasting, these multi-dimensional wizards only conjure up shields or mystical swords to fight. The story also feels very rushed, with Strange becoming proficient in the magical arts only days after walking in a firm believer of logic and reason. The film may have benefited from more time dedicated to the traditional training montage that comes with these types of stories, but the film clocks in at just under two hours and is wise enough to leave one wanting more.
Benedict Cumberbatch proves himself to be just as arresting to watch on American screens as he is in British television (Sherlock fans will be pleasantly surprised at how alike the characters are), and Chiwetel Ejiofor channels his best Shakespeare as Mordo, delivering lines about “dark dimensions” that would otherwise sound ridiculous coming from another actor. Comic-book fans may know how the friendship ends, but can take comfort in knowing that can only result in a more fleshed out character in the next installment). The talented Tilda Swinton, cast in what could be Hollywood’s most controversial role of 2016, excels as the Ancient One, whether she is calmly preparing tea and speaking about “opening your mind”, or conjuring magic blades and turning reality inside out. On that note, it seems that Marvel tried their best to keep the film from feeling as “white-washed” as many feared it would turn out, taking the Tibetan monastery from the comics and turning it into a haven for all cultures to join, regardless of ethnical background. Mads Mikkelsen, the villain of the movie, has one brief scene where he outlines his sinister plot, but is otherwise underused. Aside from fighting and yelling, he only stares menacingly into the camera in his best scowl since playing Le Chiffre from Casino Royale. Rachel McAdams plays the surgeon love interest to Cumberbatch’s Strange, and the two share some tender scenes where their chemistry feels natural yet conflicted by some troubled past we are only hinted at. I am just glad she is not reduced to an object and is given some strength of her own to know when to walk away and when to help save a life. Benedict Wong is deadpan and hilarious, playing the librarian monk who occasionally listens to Beyonce while reading up on ancient spells. Like the actors, Doctor Strange knows when to be dramatic and when to switch to comedic fun (Though one sequence involving Strange’s wardrobe coming to life may feel just a bit too cartoonish to fit in with the rest of the story.) It definitely helps to see that the actors on screen seem to be having as much fun playing their parts as the audience is in watching them.
With Michael Giacchino writing the score, the music feels ethereal and ominous, with heavy choirs echoing his work from the Star Trek series. There is no stand out theme to be heard here, but there is a delightful mix of harpsichord and guitar riffs that seem to be an homage to Pink Floyd and the comic’s psychedelic origins. It kicks in when it needs to and carries the film better than other scores in previous Marvel films.
Marvel has done it again, delivering thrills and laughs with yet another success to add to their growing roster of blockbuster heroes. While at times feeling like the formula is overstaying its welcome, the film offers just enough “strange” to make this origin story worthy of praise. I’d give it an enthusiastic 4 out of 5 and would recommend a showing in IMAX 3-D to become immersed in the visuals.