Doctor Strange (2016)

I am constantly surprised at how many movies and television shows that Marvel Studios and Disney keeps churning out.  I figured once they got the Avengers together they would just hit us with a series of those movies until the cash cow ran dry.  Instead, it seems that they are content to make standalone movies for almost every character they can find and, failing that, throw in references everywhere.

That brings us to Doctor Strange.  Another of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's creations, he debuted in 1963 with a look similar to that of horror great Vincent Price.  Instead of getting his powers from radiation, mutation or scientific advancements, Dr. Stephen Strange learns how to control magic (as well as a healthy helping of martial arts) after an accident ends his career as a neurosurgeon.  He then goes on to use that magic to defeat the usual menagerie of bad guys.

Despite starring in several of his own comic books, the figure is marginal at best, usually appearing to aid some of the more famous characters.  Because of this the only other live-action version of Strange was a 1978 television movie which altered quite a bit of the story.

This time around Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is once again a talented, but egotistical, neurosurgeon who lords his skills over his colleagues as well as his on-and-off-again lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).  He typically rejects patients that he thinks he can't save in order to keep his reputation intact.  One night, while speeding along a mountain road and looking at information on his phone, he crashes his vehicle and barely survives.  When he does wake up he finds out that he has severe nerve damage in his hands and can no longer follow his chosen career.

Depressed and low on funds, Strange bounces from one idea to another without success, until he hears of a man who had a severe spinal cord injury that he himself had passed on because he thought the situation was hopeless.  Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) somehow learned to walk again.  Strange finds Pangborn and learns that, when all medical hope was lost, Pangborn opted for the spiritual.  After years of searching he found a place in Nepal called Kamar-Taj that taught him how to heal himself.

Strange spends his remaining money to go to Nepal and find Kamar-Taj.  While in Kathmandu he is assaulted by robbers, but rescued by Master Mordo (Chiwetal Ejiofor), who takes him to see the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).  Initially he is rejected due to his ego and the similarity of his situation to a prior student named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has since turned against the Ancient One and stolen pages form a book that tell how one may gain immortality.  Reluctantly, strange is ultimately let in.

After difficult training in which Strange largely fails before being put in a life and death situation, it is revealed to him that the order he has joined exists to maintain three sanctums around the globe: London, New York and Hong Kong.  With them standing the earth is protected from incursion from the Dark Dimension, where a being called Dormammu (Cumberbatch) dwells with the intent of bringing all the worlds of the multiverse into his realm, which lies outside of time itself.  It is this power that Kaecilius and his followers intend to tap into, with the goal of not only immortality for themselves, but for humanity in general, by destroying the sanctums and allowing Dormammu to fulfill his goal .

Through trial and error Strange finds that he is able to manipulate a relic called the Eye of Agamotto, which allows him to control time.  He also discovers the Cloak of Levitation, which not only allows him to do such but also guides him in the correct actions to take while battling Kaecilius, who easily destroys the London sanctum and twice attacks New York, leaving in weakened.  With his focus set on Hong Kong, and the order of sorcerers much diminished, it is up to the surviving few to defend the earth from both Kaecilius and Dormammu.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as can be expected, fits well in the role, even if he is forced to do an American accent.  Tilda Swinton brings both ruthlessness and heart to the Ancient One, as is required.  Chiwetal Ejiofor's Mordo is presented as both a sidekick to Strange and the Ancient One, but eventually becomes one of the more complex characters.  Meanwhile, Bendict Wong as Wong, Kamar-Taj's librarian, is largely there to play a foil to many of Strange's more annoying aspects.  Rachel McAdams, though she is supposed to be a doctor, is largely there to be pretty and bouncy.

Sadly, Mads Mikkelsen is treated the same way most of the Marvel villains have been treated, with little backstory or motivation.  He gets a little more than some of his predecessors, but the role could have gone to a lesser actor.  Mikkelsen is way too talented to play a one-dimension character.

What caught the eye most in the trailers for Doctor Strange was the kaleidoscopic images of worlds twisting among themselves during some of the fight scenes.  Though there is some surface relation to Inception, this is truly something entirely different.  This is also one of the places where the movie shines.  It uses CGI to great effect to show fights among what looks like an M.C. Escher painting.  There are spirit fights outside the body, astral trips through the multiverse and many other things that occur that, for once, make sense of a heavy use of computer animation. 

Too bad that, good performances and stunning visuals aside, this is still the same old origin story that we have seen over and over again for awhile now.  Egotistical or slightly broken person falls to their lowest, discovers that the world has more to offer and, despite not yet having a grip on everything they can do, defeats some bad guy intent on destroying the world.  It's a good movie, as are many of the other Marvel films, but it is beginning to remind me why at some point in my early teens I decided that I was getting too old for comic books.

Doctor Strange (2016)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen
Director: Scott Derrickson


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