Opening this weekend is Marvel Studio’s 14th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and second movie in Phase 3, Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Expectations have been high for the Sorcerer Supreme especially following the box office success and critically acclaimed Captain America: Civil War. Disney and Marvel Studios is starting to branch into more uncharted territory with their second tier characters though most Marvel comic books fans know the Doctor pretty well. Where the Avengers protect the world from physical threats, Doctor Strange protects the world from more mystical threats and to delve into the mystic arts side of the Marvel universe is a gamble Marvel took and succeeded with.
In Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, the movie opens up with the central villain of the story, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempting to steal forbidden rituals from his former master The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). After a brief confrontation with The Ancient One and Kaecilius and his followers, the latter escapes with the rituals. We are then introduced to Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), an arrogant and overconfident but brilliant physician who is highly regarded by many if not only to himself. He is joined by a former flame and fellow physician Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who both work at the same hospital.
While driving to a speaking event for surgeons, he is nonchalantly picking whose lives he should save (pay attention as there is a little easter egg in regards to a certain Avenger in this scene) to boost his own ego and reputation. After getting into a freak accident where not only his life was in danger but also losing his miracle hands, being crushed in the car accident, he is rushed back to the hospital barely clinging on to life. His hands though usable, is permanently damaged. After many attempts at trying experimental therapies and operations, he makes a last-ditch effort at eastern medicine to save his hands and travels to Nepal in search for mystics that saved another man’s paralysis.
He eventually meets The Ancient One and after showing him the multiverses beyond his own knowledge and understanding, she refuses to help him save his hands. Though Strange has plenty of potential, she is fearful that he would turn to the dark path just as her former student Kaecilius did. After her student Mordo’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) insistence, she finally caves and decides to train him in the mystic arts. This sets in motion the inevitable conflict with the former student Kaecilius and the current student Doctor Strange to take up the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme to save the world from the dark dimension.
The film follows a similar formula to the other Marvel films. We are introduced to the central conflict of the story, the hero is revealed but has to go through revelations of self and character, accept his role as the hero and save the world from the central conflict. It’s a formula that has worked for Marvel and continues to work for Doctor Strange. Maybe it’s the fact that we are being introduced to the world of mystical arts that the movie seems, even to the hardcore comics fans, fresh and exciting.
Though it follows a repetitive formula, the success of Doctor Strange lies in its pacing, never losing the audiences engagement in the scene. From heartfelt moments between Strange and Palmer to comedic moments between Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong), the movie doesn’t lose a scene to dull moments of dialogue or overuse of visual effects. And the visual effects is easily one of the movie’s most beautiful and visceral experiences (think Inception dialed up to 11), at times making us believe that maybe there is a mystical war being waged in a mirror dimension amongst us. But the strongest aspect of Doctor Strange though is in the interactions between The Ancient One and Doctor Strange. The butting of heads between eastern philosophy versus western science provides moments of existential clarity that these two worlds can coexist in the grand scheme of the universe or multiverse. This simple philosophical interaction sets the tone for the movie and for the audience to believe that Doctor Strange and the mystical arts can coexist in the overall Marvel universe and be a strong if not essential figure in the battles to come.
Doctor Strange isn’t without its own faults. Christine Palmer is Strange’s key love interest but the chemistry was a bit lacking through no fault of either actor other than the fact that they didn’t get enough screen time to develop their story. The comedic moments though funny at times misses the mark when compared to Robert Downey Jr’s well-timed quips and sarcasm as Tony Stark. Maybe the studio wanted to replicate the success of Iron Man as a character and possibly replace him in the franchise with another leading hero as Robert Downey Jr’s time as Iron Man is coming to a close that they tried a bit too hard with Doctor Strange.
To address the biggest elephant in the room is the criticism of the white-washing of the The Ancient One’s character, who in the movie is “Celtic” and female was originally in the comics an Asian male. Though the criticism may be fair, Tilda Swinton played the character magnificently. Being an Asian male myself, I never once felt the character of The Ancient One was poorly portrayed or racially divisive. And that credit all goes to the writers and Swinton for her believable portrayal of a wise and benevolent master of the mystic arts, usually a role stereotyped by elder asian men. And to its point, is why the movie succeeded in tearing down not only old and new beliefs but that we can all coexist without the social, political and/or religious barriers that hold us back.
This movie is an important addition to the Marvel universe as it will tie up the mystic/cosmic realm with the physical realm as we inch closer to the ultimate conflict in the Infinity War. Go see it this weekend and as always, stay for the mid credits and after the end credits as well.
DOCTOR STRANGE: [usr 4]
Synopsis: After his career is destroyed, a brilliant but arrogant and conceited surgeon gets a new lease on life when a sorcerer takes him under his wing and trains him to defend the world against evil.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: C. Robert Cargill, Steve Ditko, Jon Spaihts
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Scott Adkins, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benedict Wong
Company: Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios
Releases: November 4th, 2016