Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He takes on cases that are difficult but he feels he can help the patient recover and live while turning down cases he is concerned might besmirch his perfect record. His former girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is a trauma surgeon in the same hospital. While they are no longer in a relationship they are still friends. While driving to an awards banquet in his honor, Strange has a car crash that severely damages his hands. The nerve damage is so severe he can no longer operate. Strange is lost and searching for some kind of remedy while at the same time driving Christine away with his self-pity and lashing out. His physical therapist tells Strange about a former patient of his named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who had a spinal cord injury that confined him to a wheelchair but had found a treatment that let him walk again. Finding Pangborn playing basketball with his friends, Strange begs to find out how he was cured. Pangborn tells him to go to Kamar-Taj in Tibet. As Strange is walking through the streets of Kathmandu asking people if they know where Kamar-Taj is, he is seen by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Saving Strange from some street thugs looking to rob him, Mordo takes Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a teacher of the mystic arts. Showing Strange there are other realities besides the one he knows, Strange begins to study and soon is able to cast spells that conjure shields and weapons as well as open portals that allow instant transportation to just about anywhere on the planet. The Ancient One also teaches Strange about the dangerous realms where creatures of great evil dwell and to avoid being seduced by their power. She tells him of one of her former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was tempted by a dark power and is trying to use a forbidden spell stolen from The Ancient One’s library to open our world up to being taken over by this evil creature. Kaecilius and his followers have attacked and destroyed one of the three sanctums that protect the Earth from threats of the metaphysical kind. It’s now up to Strange to use his newfound powers to protect the Earth from Kaecilius and a dark evil from another dimension.
“Doctor Strange” is a middling entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” of even the first “Iron Man” film. It has some interesting ideas about realms beyond this universe and terrific performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong. It also has some of the same problems as many other comic book movies.
My biggest issue with the movie is the miscast villain. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor as he has shown in the TV show “Hannibal” and numerous movies. Kaecilius is a role that doesn’t allow Mikkelsen to use his great ability of quiet menace. Kaecilius is a flashy villain that casts spells and makes a big show of his power. While Mikkelsen does an admirable job of portraying Kaecilius as both thoughtful and ruthless, the part doesn’t match up to the actor’s strengths. Either the role needed to be written with less action, allowing Kaecilius’ acolytes to do all the fighting and running and he gets to be quiet and menacing, or another actor should have been cast. The part of the action villain doesn’t really fit Mikkelsen.
The story also lacks emotional heft. It never made me feel like the characters were the kinds of people that I was concerned for. At times, I wanted worse things to happen to Strange as after the accident he becomes even more self-obsessed and cruel, especially to Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer who shows him nothing but concern and compassion. I realize the character has to be portrayed as selfish in order for him to come around and be a hero but the script by director Scott Derrickson along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill does almost too good a job at making Strange a monster before putting him on the path or redemption.
Speaking of McAdams, she is criminally underused in the film. While her character, which shares the name of a comic book character known as the Night Nurse, might have a recurring role in future films, it will likely be either as a damsel in distress or as a love interest for the hero: In other words, more of the same for women in comic book movies. McAdams does a great job in the limited time she has on screen but both the actress and the character could have done a great deal more other than being a stereotypical doormat for Strange.
Aside from those problems, “Doctor Strange” is at times a visual acid trip. While I’ve never personally used a hallucinogen I can’t imagine the sights being much different than those when The Ancient One sends Strange on a quick journey into the multiverse. Between that and when Strange and Mordo battle Kaecilius and his followers in what looks to be a M. C. Escher-inspired New York landscape, “Doctor Strange” has some of the most inspired visuals of any MCU film. The non-acid trip parts of the movie look great too, including the car crash that ironically starts Doctor Strange on his journey and the introduction of the Cloak of Levitation which seems to have a personality that both matches and clashes with the wearer. There are some genuinely amazing sights to see in “Doctor Strange.”
I saw the IMAX 3D version and while the added dimension really never pops off the screen in an entertaining way, the larger format certainly made the movie feel more immersive. Still I don’t know if the added cost was worth it.
“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. The violence is both fantastical and intense. Kaecilius and his followers conjure spears that look like glass. There is also a whip that is made of orange energy that looks like it burns. While it isn’t directly shown, one character is beheaded. Another character appears to lose an arm. There are numerous fights of both the magical and non-magical kind. Blood is minimal. The car crash, while clearly computer generated, might scare smaller children. Strange is shown being thrown around inside the car and his hands being crushed. Foul language is scattered and consists of words often heard on basic cable shows.
For all its mind-bending visuals and talk of the multiverse, “Doctor Strange” is a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Stephen Strange is a flawed character that needs something extraordinary to open his eyes to the world (and worlds) beyond his knowledge. Most who become super beings from relatively normal beginnings bring along some kind of flaw or issue that needs to receive an other worldly kick in the pants to straighten them out. Much like Tony Stark and Thor Odinson, Stephen Strange was presented with a problem he couldn’t fix and had to set aside his ego to become a better person. As superhero origin stories go “Doctor Strange” isn’t breaking any new ground. It also doesn’t give us an emotional connection to the characters that would set this film above the middle of the Marvel pack. It isn’t great but it is pretty good.
“Doctor Strange” gets four magical stars out of five.
This week, the holidays arrive early, the help arrives to find strangeness afoot and the aliens just arrive. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
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