Doctor Strange is Marvel’s latest entry into the pantheon of their wider Cinematic Universe which includes all of the films other than the X-Men and Fantastic Four (both franchises are both held in a death grip by Fox) and until his appearance in Captian America: Civil War, Spiderman (which is only loosely being held at this point by Sony). While it’s story is a rather straightforward origin tale – a gifted individual encounters a major personal crisis which takes away their self-identity and they head off in a voyage of self-discovery.
In this case the individual in question, Doctor Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant yet utterly narcissistic neurosurgeon (think of a blend between House and Sherlock). After being critically injured in a car accident (with a heavy dose PSA messaging of don’t text and drive, kids) which badly impairs his ability to use his hands. He encounters Pangborn, an individual who had previously been a patient of Strange and had lost the use of his legs but is now moving fully healed. Pangborn points him towards Kamar-Taj to seek out a chance to regain the use of his hands.
If the story sounds not unlike that of Tony Stark or Batman, there’s no real surprise there. In each case it’s that of a unbearably self-centered hero that is actually good enough at what they do, and with what is supposed to be a good heart that we still find it interesting enough to follow along and put up with their antics. In this case it’s almost, but not quite a bit of a stretch to be engaged in the character. He’s mostly an ass to everyone he meets, including the Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton), but we know at some point the effects will kick in, so we stick with it. And once it does, the Marvel imagery doesn’t disappoint. Lifting much of the visual cues and magical gestures directly from the comics, and mixed with dimensional shifting effects largely directly from Inception, it becomes an acid trip put up on the screen.
Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is another master of the mystical arts who had trained under the Ancient One, but has chosen to go on his own path, feeling that the Ancient One’s rules are too restrictive for his ambitions. The effects are visually dazzling, but after a while once you’ve seen the first half dozen or so buildings roll up on themselves, you’ve seen them all. It feels like director and co-screenwriter Scott Derrickson had a few ideas for how to present running magical battles between master sorcerers, but used them all in the first big fight, then keep reusing them for the rest of them film.
The greatest lost opportunity was in the role of Doctor Christine Palmer played by Rachel McAdams. She’s Strange’s ex, and a fellow surgeon, but the character has so little actual relevance to the story that she could have been entirely cut from the film and nothing would have been lost. When Strange puts in a return to his old hospital with a request, it could as readily have gone to any colleague of Strange’s. Palmer has no individual identity or agency, and it just leads itself to the point that while Marvel is doing alright with it’s male characters, it still has a ways to go in giving relevance to any non-hero women. When they had a hit on their hands with Agent Coulson, Marvel ran with it. After five feature films, they still have no idea what to do with Pepper Potts. Hopefully next time they’ll get better at it.
But for now, Doctor Strange is fine to good. It’s not Ant-Man level, but it’s solid pre-holiday fun and worth the price of admission.
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