Doctor Strange: Magical, Action-Packed, And A Little Bit Strange
Doctor Strange, the latest in the Marvel Universe lineup, is a film that lives up to its mystical subject – magical, action-packed, and full of drama and humor, it is guaranteed to entertain while introducing the audience to the latest member of the superhero team. Starring as the neurosurgeon who suffers a near fatal accident that costs him his hands, the chameleon-esque Benedict Cumberbatch proves yet again that he is a force to be reckoned with. Joining him are the equally talented Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, Benedict Wong as Wong, and Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius. Together, they combine their performances with stunning visual effects to create a story that is overall compelling, entertaining, and leaves you wanting more.
On November 4th, it opened in theatres across the U.S. and grossed $85 million domestically. This past weekend, it opened worldwide and grossed more than $325 million, making it the latest success for the popular comic empire. Currently holding a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and continuing to bring in moviegoers, it is easily dominating the November box office, although later contenders (such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) may give it a run for its money. Early reviews for Doctor Strange have been fairly consistent between critics, with descriptions such as “visually stunning,” “masterfully casted,” and “amazing and dazzling” being thrown around. A few noted that the effects and performances compensated for the “usual thin-ish story” that accompanies Marvel films. Fanboys and fangirls alike have been overwhelmingly complimentary, praising the faithful rendering of the mystical sorcerer’s origin story and ensuing journey into being.
As with its other films, Marvel was smart enough to balance the expectations of faithful readers with the need to attract new fans. With just enough Easter eggs and obligatory end-credit scene to keep things interesting, the movie also uses a variety of techniques and effects to take us down the rabbit hole of the multiverse right along with Strange. Let’s have a look at a few things, shall we?
As you can imagine, SPOILERS ABOUND AHEAD!
Despite all its mind-bending effects and unforgettable soundtrack, this movie is, at its core, about self-discovery and redemption. All of the major characters introduced to us throughout grow in understanding of themselves and the people around them. It is their ability to consolidate their perceptions with reality that determines their fate.
As Doctor Steven Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch’s nuanced performance as the sorcerer is painfully accurate. He is initially a narcissistic, dismissive individual who spends more time maintaining his professional reputation than meaningful relationships. (As a real life doctor, I can honestly say that it’s a very accurate portrayal of the neurosurgeons I have come in contact with.) From the way he highlights with anger and resentment towards everyone after the loss of his dexterity to the desperation he shows when at the door of Kamar-Taj, Cumberbatch makes sure you can sense the pain hiding beneath the surface. When Strange finally accepts his new identity, he does not lose the values that he had as a physician. This is prominently displayed when he breaks down after killing one of Kaecilius’s men, shouting that he promised to do no harm.
Despite reservations, Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is beautifully portrayed as she imbues the sorceress with a cutting wit and unclearly defined sense of right and wrong. She presents almost like a mirror to Strange, starting out cold and superior but growing more compassionate and understanding with time. There is a frailty to her that comes through; you get the feeling that she is lying about her relationship to the Dark Dimension not just to protect her students, but also because she is ashamed. It is only after she acknowledges her mistakes that she is able to let go, choosing to sacrifice herself as a final act of penance.
Although a chief villain in the comics, the Mordo Chiwetel Ejiofor brings to the screen reflects his ability to breathe life into characters that fight with the darkness within them. When introduced to Strange, he admits to doing many things he was not proud of, but also fully embraced the teachings of The Ancient One. He serves as the conscience for Strange, but as time passes you see the jealousy he feels towards his friend’s natural talent fester into resentment. By the end of the film, the perceived betrayal by both The Ancient One and Strange leads him into the darkness, setting up for the epic showdown between the two former friends in a sequel.
Mads Mikkelsen is glorious as usual in the title role of the villain Kaecilius, with his fanatical belief in Dormammu and desire to exact revenge on The Ancient One for her betrayal. He is everything Strange is but more at first: more powerful, more knowledgeable, and more confident. Kaecilius acts as a foil to him, depicting what could happen if anger takes control, repeating the same words spoken by Strange at the beginning of his journey – “We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.” As with the other actors, Mikkelsen peels back the layers to Kaecilius to reveal the hurt.
A discussion of the main characters would not be complete without the Cloak of Levitation, which I have to admit was a stroke of genius on the part of the director. Anthropomorphizing the magical relic gave the film a number of hilarious moments, and it often provided comedic relief during particularly intense or dramatic moments. All I can say is, it can wipe tears from my eyes anyday.
The Eyes and Ears
It wouldn’t be a Marvel superhero film without the non-stop action and special effects, and Doctor Strange doesn’t disappoint. The choice to give muted, blue and black tones to the beginning of the story, contrasted by the rainbow of colors after his arrival to Kamar-Taj allows for clear separation of the two parts of his life. It is only during the final battles that the two sides collide, and so does the color palette.
The psychedelic mind trip The Ancient One gives Strange to open his eyes is one long fall through a kaleidoscope, and it is so beautifully done that the audience is left just as uncomfortable and disconcerted as he is when it’s over. The fight scenes are reminiscent of Inception with its landscape folding, and the final confrontation between The Ancient One and Kaecilius like a M.C. Escher drawing come to life. With the sheer number of magical spells, weaponry, and shifting worlds, it is worth every penny to watch the film in 3D.
The soundtrack also bears mentioning, as composer Michael Giacchino incorporated the same psychedelic emotion into the main theme and end credits. Utilizing a combination of electric guitar and a variety of (possibly synthesized) Eastern instruments, Giacchino melds the two worlds of Doctor Strange in musical form. I found that when listening, the score makes me feel simultaneously excited and uncomfortable – exactly how I feel it would be like to be Strange during this journey.
Despite having many things going for it, there are a few things I found disappointing in Doctor Strange:
With the strong showing it had with the main characters, it is with the supporting characters that Marvel loses its way. The introduction of a multitude of characters that may or may not have any significance in the future caused confusion, and their stories felt wedged in. Benedict Wong turned in an admirable performance of the librarian (ironically also named Wong), but his limited screen time frames him as more one-dimensional, and the same can be said for Rachel McAdam’s Christine Palmer, who many sources have connected to Night Nurse in the Marvel Universe. With reported Easter eggs containing mention of the inclusion of Dr. Nicomedus West, Master Hamir, Daniel Drumm, and possibly the Mindless Ones, it’s easy to see how a comic-naive audience member (like myself) would get lost in the details. To me, it felt like too much in an already packed storyline, and it took away some of the pleasure of watching it.
Speaking of the storyline, I was also disappointed in the looseness of the plot itself. Being a Marvel film fan, I understand that there is always a difficulty balancing action with plot. In this case, however, the lack of depth at times in the script prevented a deeper understanding and connection with the characters. This is particularly prominent with Doctor Strange, the focus on his mystical battles took away from the subtle psychological changes I was hoping to see in his character. It is a testament to the actors’ skills that they could bring out such wonderful performances despite the lack of scripted moments of growth.
The positive reception the film has received since opening has helped to defer attention from one of the other major issues that came up with the film: the whitewashing controversy that plagued it for the last few months. After the casting announcement was made that Tilda Swinton would be taking on the role of The Ancient One, traditionally a Tibetan male in the comics, social media backlash was immediate and vocal. Shortly before the release of the film, director Scott Derrickson attempted to explain his rationale for making changes to the character, citing desire not to fall prey to racial stereotyping (“Dragon Lady” persona) but triggering a loss of diversity and increasing perception of racial appropriation. Coming from the perspective of an Asian American woman, I really didn’t find that changing The Ancient One to a Celtic white female sorceress added to the mystery or the plot. I honestly didn’t understand why the decision was made, given that countless fans (of all colors) already accepted The Ancient One as an Asian stereotype.
Doctor Strange is a phenomenal addition to the Marvel film family, and I would highly recommend it to any fan of superheroes or magic. Its stunning visual effects, well-suited soundtrack, and strong acting performances greatly outweighs the minor issues of light plot and diverse representation. With a cameo by a certain mighty Asgardian warrior looking for his father, the revelation that the Eye of Agamotto contains an infinity stone, and Marvel’s end credit promise that Doctor Strange will return in 2017, I am looking forward to seeing more from Doctor Strange.