DOCTOR STRANGE Directed by Scott Derickson; Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams; Running time 115 minutes, Rated PG-13 for action violence and some frightening images; In wide release November 4, 2016.
“Doctor Strange” is the fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has has now stretched for nearly a decade. Once again, Marvel has taken a character few outside of geek culture will recognize and given him the big screen treatment.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant and egotistical neurosurgeon who is world renowned for the near miracles he can perform on the operating table. A near-fatal car crash however leaves him with permanent nerve damage in his hands which means that he can barely write his name let alone perform surgery for the rest of his life. After wasting his fortune on experimental treatments that do nothing to restore his hands, he travels to Nepal to find Kamar-Taj where it is rumored he can find someone to at last heal him. He is taken in by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her acolytes Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who show him that there is more to this world than the book studies he has come to rely on. Opening up his mind to the mysteries of the universe, Stephen Strange studies the forgotten arts and must decide to use his powers to save himself or possibly all of mankind.
There is a lot more to talk about here, but we want to save the events of the movie for everyone to experience for themselves. A few of us here at BSR did get a chance to see it at an advance screening, so we wanted to band together to share our thoughts in a spoiler-free review for everyone to enjoy.
Adam: So I’ll be the first to admit that I had very little knowledge of the character going in. In fact, before doing a little bit of research by reading the graphic novel “The Oath”, most of what I learned had come from the trailers of the movie itself. What the movie accomplishes so well is not only introducing Stephen Strange to a broader and possibly unaware audience but also telling his backstory in such a way that it stays interesting and engaging throughout. Yes, some originitis does slightly set in, but it never lingers in one place too long so that boredom rears its ugly head. Not only does the plot progress quickly, but we are taken to intriguing locales along the way. From New York to Nepal and then the Astral Plane, we whiz along with Strange learning the intricacies of magic and the multiverse along with him. Just as Tony Stark had to broaden his mind by accepting the existence of aliens in “Iron Man 3”, so too does Stephen Strange have to accept that there is more to this world than all the book studies he has committed to memory. There is much that the physical mind cannot comprehend, and we get to experience that first glimpse through the keyhole with him in an extraordinary way.
Andy: Ditto. I knew about Doctor Strange only from his roles in major Marvel crossover events and basic familiarity with his backstory and rogues’ gallery. What is most impressive here is that it stands on its own. You could walk into this movie having read zero comics ever and having seen no other Marvel movie just to see the visuals and the performances by Cumberbatch and Swinton (which is really what you should come for) and walk away immersed in this world. That’s no small feat.
Bryan: Doctor Strange has been a favorite of mine as far back as I can remember and I’ve read many of his comics, but that’s almost irrelevant in trying to judge this film as it stands on its own in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m happy to report that it does. As Adam referred to the “Originitis,” I would disagree. This film had to be an origin story because it needed to introduce us to ideas we’ve never before seen in the Marvel Universe. Where "Guardians of the Galaxy" gave us a window into the inner-workings of the universe in the MCU, "Doctor Strange" showed us the multiverse and showing us the rules of how to do that and how our hero will need to navigate it took time. And Stephen Strange’s origin is one of the most fascinating. Thankfully, the filmmakers kept that part of the film cooking and it never once, at least for me, felt tedious.
Adam: I didn’t mean it as a slight against the film by saying it has “originitis.” I’m with you in that you have to have that to explain just how nuanced and layered the character is. Especially since so few will have an understanding of Doctor Strange right out of the gate. This is an origin story that other movies should wisely take heed of and learn from.
Andy: That being said, it felt a little formulaic. We’ve seen this before -- largely because Marvel has perfected this formula -- but it’s a little bit like complaining that your perfectly-cooked porterhouse steak is “too beefy.” Yup, that’s what you ordered, and it’s what was called for. But it is an origin story and treads over the same ground that Marvel Phase I stories did. At least his story is a little bit ... err ... strange because that helps keep it moving along.
Bryan: One thing I loved about the film is that it’s rooted in the bizarre, surreal imagery that Steve Ditko brought to the original book. The look of it is completely bonkers and following it with any sort of logic seems impossible.
Adam: Ditko is present as well as Escher. I can honestly say I have never seen anything like this in any movie that has come before. Sure, many were saying this is Marvel’s “Inception”, but what takes place in that film pales in comparison to the wonders to behold here. Mind boggling is almost an understatement.
Andy: Comparing this movie to "Inception" or "The Matrix" feels kind of like comparing those films to 1960s sci-fi movies. The visuals are taken to the next level, creating that otherworldly sense that Ditko and other artists have brought to comics. Layered on top of the visuals is the first truly memorable score in a Marvel movie since "The Avengers", courtesy Michael Giacchino. He incorporates eastern instruments without it ever feeling like a cheesy kung-fu movie. The song that plays over the denouement, appropriately titled “The Master of the Mystic End Credits,” successfully incorporates a flanged electric guitar, sitar, harpsichord, asian-inspired strings, and a 1960’s soul/r&b-inspired electric piano into one of the most original sounding songs in a movie in years.
Bryan: I would never compare a great movie like this to a bad movie like "The Matrix" or a good but overwrought movie like "Inception." Overall, the film plays it safe to what makes Doctor Strange such an enduring character and Cumberbatch inhabits the role with aplomb. He’s obviously having a good time in the part, even when his character is being awful. That’s part of what makes the movie fun. I didn’t expect a Doctor Strange film to be so “fun,” but this really switched that particular knob past eleven.
Adam: Right? There were so many fun and funny moments that help break up the drama and keep the audience engaged without wearing them out. Cumberbatch is fantastic. Hell, everyone does an amazing job! Tilda Swinton is magnificent as The Ancient One and Mads Mikkelsen is malevolent and downright creepy as the antagonist. Everyone brought their A game.
Andy: I was worried with Cumberbatch that I’d spend the movie watching Benedict Cumberbatch acting! And instead he completely disappears into this role in a way not seen in almost any other Marvel movie. RDJ, Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt command their movies, but there’s a lot of themselves in playing Stark, Rogers, Thor, and Starlord. Here the actor completely disappears and there is no artifice to the performance. And Swinton brings a heart to this film I didn’t think possible in the role of the wise old sensei who trains their pupil. She also delivers a clear, compelling message that is so important for all of us to hear, especially this weekend. I always try to ask of a film, “What is this saying about where we are right now?” Iron Man taught us to own up to our mistakes, Cap to stand up to bullies, and Guardians to “give a shit” about the universe. Doctor Strange gives us a message that is undeniable and, in America at least, a prescient warning about narcissism and arrogance.
Bryan: There’s a particular moment in the climax, the way Strange ends up defeating the big bad guy, that put a smile on my face from ear to ear and is the sort of thing I needed in a Doctor Strange film. This really is one of the comics come to life, and it’s the thing that makes Marvel’s films work. They improve on what made the comic great, rather than try to switch the formula too much.
Adam: Bryan, I’ve come to bargain.
Andy: It was great. And you have a hero who is a doctor who takes his oath to “first, do no harm” seriously -- for whom the idea of taking a life is anathema. And he finds a way out, using his intellect, his magic, his willpower rather than just beating people up into submission. It’s the exact palate cleanser we need after "Civil War."
Bryan: Because of the incredible action sequences, well-thought out characters and situations, how smart the script was, and just how fun it was, this ranks as one of the best of the Marvel films. I’m giving it a solid 9 out of 10. We need more like this, please.
Adam: I can’t think of anything the film could have done differently that would have improved it. The story is wonderful and engaging, the acting top notch and it’s one of the most visually stunning things I’ve ever seen. Marvel has done it again, and I can’t wait to see “Doctor Strange” again and also to see what the company has up their sleeve for future endeavors. 10 out of 10
Andy: As impressed as I am with this and the visuals and the performances, I’ve seen other, (slightly) better films from Marvel. It is an origin story and so suffers from having to spend so long setting the table. Even as well-paced and fun to watch as it is, it can’t match some of its peers like "Winter Soldier", "Civil War" or "Guardians of the Galaxy", which managed to be an origin story that never felt like an origin story. But, it is both the most visually stunning AND best acted of any of the Marvel films, as well as a fantastic, original sounding score. And so for that I give it an 8.5 out of 10.