By Nathan Evans
The strangest thing about former horror director Scott Derrickson’s ‘Doctor Strange’ is how fresh and different his film feels when compared to the thirteen previous entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the series of interconnected films based off of classic Marvel characters that began in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s ‘Iron Man’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very apparent that this film takes place within the same universe the characters that comprise The Avengers inhabit, but the film is never reliant on the mythology that came before; a problem that’s arisen from time to time with some of the other films that comprise the MCU.
‘Doctor Strange’ follows Stephen Strange, a world renowned neurosurgeon, who, due to his own hubris, is involved in a violent car crash that irreparably damages his hands. When medical science fails him and his own sinking sense of self worth alienates the only woman that might possibly care about him (his colleague/ on again off again love interest Dr. Christine Palmer, portrayed by Rachel McAdams), Strange travels the world on his last dime, seeking out any possible means to restore his hands to their former glory. His search takes him all the way to Katmandu, to the presence of a seemingly ageless guru known as ‘The Ancient One’ who instructs Strange in the ways of magic. Of course, while in the midst of his studies, it’s not long before Strange stumbles across a plot by a former student turned zealot of ‘The Ancient One’ to unleash a deadly being from a dark dimension to consume the planet. You know, as is wont to happen.
Danish character actor/ all around creepy looking guy (I mean that in the best of ways) Mads Mikkelsen plays the aforementioned zealot Kaecilius, and he’s one of the many things that sets the film apart. Of all the great things that populate the MCU, the films have never been known for their focus on the villains. Kaecilius is the first antagonist since ‘The Avengers’’ Loki to make a considerable impression. He’s got a real (if misguided) motivation behind his actions and the film manages to get that across with an economy of screen time that relies heavily upon Mikkelsen’s abundant talent. Of course Mikkelsen isn’t alone in the talent department.
‘Doctor Strange’ boasts a bevy of some of the best screen actors working today. We get excellent supporting work from Chiwetel Ejifor as Karl Mordo; a disciple of ‘The Ancient One’. The always engaging Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the doctor himself, stretching in ways I’ve personally never seen the actor stretch before. Cumberbatch seems to be the go to guy for dark characters and or arrogant yet brilliant jerks (see his work on the BBC’s excellent ‘Sherlock’), and while we get a little bit of the latter here, it’s refreshing to see the actor show off his comedic chops as well.
While Cumberbatch shines in this capacity, he nearly has the rug pulled out from under him by Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’. With a shaved head that gives the already unique looking actress an extraterrestrial-like flair, Swinton manages to steal every scene she’s in, providing some of the film’s livelier moments as well as it’s most somber. There were some accusations of white washing surrounding Swinton’s casting as a character that has traditionally been depicted as a Tibetan male (of which I was admittedly a part), but after seeing the film I’m convinced the producers behind the movie and Derrickson himself made the right choice. Swinton is the best thing in ‘Doctor Strange’ and that’s saying something as there’s a lot here to get excited about.
The most prominent draw of ‘Doctor Strange’, after its tremendous cast, are the film’s titanic visuals. While it’s not beautiful in the classic sense, ‘Doctor Strange’ is stunning in a pop art sort of way. Derrickson and his team of artists take inspiration directly from the comic book source material (specifically original co-creator Steve Ditko’s acid inspired artwork) and puts it right on the screen. The team of effects artists meld that classic inspiration with a series of visual effects that can only be described as the city-folding-from-Christopher-Nolan’s-‘Inception’-times-twenty to create some of the most twisting and unique visuals ever put to film.
It’s a common complaint these days to bemoan the overuse of CGI in blockbuster films, but rather than avoiding that, Derrickson leans into it. There’s a ton of computer generated imagery at play here, but it never gets messy. Unlike this years non MCU Marvel film ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’, the viewer is never lost in the shuffle. There’s always a sense of space and geography that makes the inventive action sequences throughout the film even more impressive.
Like most comic book films that deal with this level of mythology, Doctor Strange does drop the ball when it comes to juggling some of its characters. Rachel McAdams, while perfectly adequate in her role, gets sidetracked and then nearly completely forgotten by the end of the film. B.D. Wong, who portrays the man that will eventually become the dedicated assistant to Doctor Strange (think of him as the Alfred to Strange’s Batman), serves as nothing more than an occasional comic foil.
Also, like some of the later films that comprise the MCU, the film does succumb to a bit of product placement. To get specific, there’s a truly perplexing moment for what I believe is a little known dairy product called Yakult. What exactly separates Yakult from normal milk and why Marvel Studios felt so obligated to push it on its audience I’ll probably never know. At any rate, most product placement is annoying and this particular instance takes place during a tense moment in the film that took me right out of it.
With the exception of a few nitpicks (G#$ d@*n foreign dairy products), ‘Doctor Strange’ is a fantastic comic book film that benefits from the relative obscurity of its character. In a world where we’ve been treated to (subjected to?) two Batmen, three Hulks, two versions of Deadpool from the same actor, and three Spider-Men, all within a ten year time period, it’s refreshing to be introduced to something new. Scott Derrickson has crafted a film that easily ranks up there with the original ‘Iron Man’ and the excellent ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, and is seemingly poised to become the MCU’s next James Gunn.
RATING: 4.75 OUT OF 5