Light on villainy and heavy on CGI, real magic has come to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and this time, it’s not synonymous with science.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is your basic pompous medical prodigy, a man gifted with healing hands that may have been touched by God himself — and he’s very aware of it. Fate being a bit of a comedian, Stephen finds himself in a car accident with his life intact but his hands shattered. Feeling useless, he expends his small fortune on risky operations with little or no improvement, finally ending up in the Far East searching for a last-chance solution that Western medicine could not provide. He is brought before the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and believes her proclaimed methods to be nothing more than New Age hippie talk — before she proves him wrong and casts him out for arrogance and disrespect. Given one chance to redeem himself, Stephen throws himself into his new studies, but unlike his fellow students and teachers, he questions more than he should… and the answers are more threatening to known reality than anyone suspects.
From its first trailers, Doctor Strange looked like it was cribbing the most interesting aspects of Inception, but that appeared mostly to have something visual on the screen. Like most MCU flicks, there’s a lot of exposition and a lot of angry arguments about right, wrong, and that pesky power/responsibility thing. As it turns out, a lot of psychedelic sixties and seventies imagery managed to sneak into the film, some of them right off the pages of the original comic books. Cumberbatch’s thin frame let the filmmakers pile on the robes, belts, and capes that give Strange his Sorcerer Supreme look, but whether you love or hate the everywhere actor, Benedict brought the character to life.
The bad part is the villainy side; while Mads Mikkelsen’s bad guy Kaecilius was fun for the screen time he got, he didn’t get enough and his henchmen are barely noticeable. Somewhere in a script rewrite or perhaps the cutting room floor, our heavy got lighter, leaving little doubt Strange would need to sacrifice anything more than a good night’s sleep studying to save the day. Of course, the real baddie is more concept than person, something this Stephen Strange has little problem wrapping his head around to divine a solution. Why shouldn’t he aspire to being Earth’s greatest mage? It’s not like he had much of a life to go back to — or many characters fleshed out enough in his backstory to bother developing.
So what about the controversy on switching the nationalities of characters like the Ancient One, aka White-Washing? If you want to do global business, you have to make global considerations — nor is it the first time Disney/Marvel have changed things up to avoid offending a potential audience (remember The Mandarin from Iron Man 3?) We’re judging what we got based on the merits of the finished product here, not the marketing motivations behind it. Hey, when you put up hundreds of millions of dollars with the intent of getting a return on your investment, you’ll have to consider making concessions like this, too.
Still, kicking off Marvel’s first movie featuring magic and spiritualism is worth a look. It sets the rules up nicely, goes off on a grand adventure, and wraps everything up with a bow — not to mention plenty of Marvel-esque no-name, non-bronze, no-prize zingers in the dialog. Sorcerers can turn the world upside, manipulate gravity wells, and travel across the globe and between dimensions with a thought; this must have been a real trick for SFX folks and editors to keep the visuals and transitions complex but still framed and simple enough for viewers to follow. The installment makes fine use of 3D, so if you’re wondering whether or not to spend the extra bucks, it’s worth it.
Doctor Strange is family friendly enough — no gore, nudity, or anything too grotesque to be warned about. A bad word or two is about it unless you have flashbacks about being in a car-flip accident or stranded on the top of a snow-capped mountain. Stay for a couple of extra scenes (one mid-credit and the other at the end) and you’ll get a hint of things to come. Strange can do great things by the end of the movie, but he still has a lot to learn before he can take on the title of “Sorcerer Supreme” — and that should be fun to watch, too.
3 Skull Recommendation Out of Four