“Death is what gives life meaning” is a line that The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tells Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) before dying herself. It’s an odd line that doesn’t survive closer inspection (death makes you appreciate life?), but it’s indicative of a Marvel movie that wants to try something different, even if it’s flawed philosophy. Doctor Strange reminds us that for all the explosions and humor, these comic book films are at their best when they focus the smaller things as opposed to a cinematic universe.

    Like his fellow rich man Tony Stark, Strange starts out living a charmed life as an arrogant expert. He frequently flirts with fellow doctor Christine (a wasted Rachel McAdams) and insults other coworkers. He also prides his “perfect record”, meaning he’s able to help all patients he treats make a full recovery.  But driving while on the phone one night causes him to mangle his hands in a car wreck, meaning he’s now one of those people doctors think can’t be fixed.

    Desperate, Strange goes to a foreign country and learns magic from The Ancient One and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He’s a quick study, seemingly devouring one book on mystics after another. I wanted to see more of his progress into expert sorcerer (and didn’t think we saw enough of him failing), but director/co-writer Scott Derrickson (Sinister) keeps the pace light enough to distract you from that (Side note; I thought I’d never see a Beyonce joke in a superhero film, but it’s 2016; anything is possible).

     Marvel loves these stories of wealthy white men who fall from grace, and why wouldn’t they when you have actors as charming as Robert Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch portraying them? Kudos to producer Kevin Feige for consistently casting great actors in these lead roles and letting them be excellent movie stars.

    Benedict nails this role. He’s been more known for TV (Sherlock) or as a supporting actor (Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years A Slave), but he’s perfectly cast for his first leading role in a big budget action film. In the hands of the wrong actor, Strange could be interpreted as an arrogant prick that you would have no sympathy for when he’s suffering, but Cumberbatch imbues just enough warmth in his screen persona to keep Strange likable.

    Although it was underdeveloped, I liked his relationship with Christine. She’s the Pepper Potts to his Tony Stark, a spry assistant with deeper feelings. What made me like her was how she stood by Stephen even after his accident, and it hurts to see them be split apart. According to Wikipedia, director Derrickson stated she was initially meant to be a love interest, but it was reworked to be more platonic. I disagree with that decision, and that move may have been why her character becomes so ridiculous in the second half. 

    When Strange transports into her hospital with a stab wound and proceeds to speak with her in spirit, she accepts everything just a little too easily. The two part ways without saying much, and she's forgotten afterwards. Others will claim she’s underwritten; I think they just forgot to write about her in the second half of the movie.

    Marvel has never done a picture with this much emphasis on visuals, and they (and approximately two minutes worth full of credited animators) keep the twisting buildings and falling floors from getting too overwhelming for the eyes. The Inception-like manipulation of surroundings only gets confusing a couple times, possibly because the animators fell too much in love with folding buildings.

    Despite an overall good story, there is an issue with underwritten characters here. Mordo has a sense of honor that pulls him in a dark direction that I would’ve liked to see the film explore in a way that wasn’t just setting up for a sequel. Mads Mikkelsen establishes his evil bonafides from the opening frame, but we hear a lot more about him being bad than we actually see it (Another side note: stories of men being seduced by the dark side are only compelling when you se it instead of hear about it from others). 

    Watching this made me wonder why I enjoyed Doctor Strange so much while loathing fellow Marvel pictures Age of Ulton and Civil War. Those movies seemed more like glorified TV episodes instead of a movie, where the goal is keep things fresh with stunt plots and guest stars. This film, like the similarly successful Ant-Man told a story that just happened to take place in the Marvel universe, rather than one that had to move it forward.     

    Let’s face it: the main criticism of these sorts of movies is that regardless of their quality, they’ve grown stale and don’t take risks (many of the same beats here can be found in Iron Man or Thor), but it’s a lot more noticeable in the team-up movies that always seem to devolve into a big fight in the city. The films that focus on individual heroes don’t always feel that pressure, and have a tonal difference that makes them more compelling. It might be smarter for Marvel to go smaller in the future and pursue individual stories as opposed to the Avengers-type stories. Granted, I’m just some post-grad kid, so maybe I might not be the best person to give career advice, but you don't want to go down the "same old, same old" path that killed disaster films and westerns. 

 

(Final side note: the credits to this film end with a plea to not drive while distracted; I guess Marvel movies now feel risky enough to advocate for non-controversial issues)

Published by Jagger Czajka