Movie Review: Doctor Strange

From horror director Scott Derrickson, and the studio that has dominated the superhero film industry for nearly ten years now, comes one of the most unique and visually-interesting superhero projects in a long while. Bringing yet another fascinating comic-book character to the big screen, Marvel Studios continues to construct their epic cinematic universe, this time diving into a realm they've only recently scratched the surface of. Delivering a typical yet at times thought-provoking origin tale, boosted by a breathtaking palette of visual stimuli and mystical action, Marvel's latest feature, Doctor Strange, again proves that Marvel Studios never fails to deliver an exciting adventure worth watching. 

A man of both profound brilliance and crippling arrogance, neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is at the top of his game in his medical career. That fame and fortune he once worked so hard to achieve is suddenly shattered, when Strange loses the ability to use his hands after a life-threatening car accident. After all the advances of western medicine fail to bring him back to his former glory, Strange embarks on a world-spanning journey to find a way to heal his hands. Stumbling upon a hidden sanctuary in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he finds a powerful being known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange soon enters a mystical realm that transcends nearly everything he ever believed. Regaining his ability to use his hands, as well as an arsenal of mystical abilities that bend the conformities of reality, the unsuspecting Strange enters a radical new war with forces beyond that of his own dimension. Transforming him beyond his former self-obsessed personality and into a compassionate warrior of the mystic arts, this hidden world Strange has now discovered is only just the beginning.  

Much like last year's Ant-Man, and more specifically, 2014's ambitious space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy, this month's Doctor Strange again managed to deliver a well-versed superhero origin story centered around a palette of characters I knew little to nothing about. With both Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy also bringing the mostly Earth-based Marvel Cinematic Universe into broader and more mystical territories, Doctor Strange provided an even greater exploration into the mystical realm, as its surgeon-turned-sorcerer main character entered a fascinating world outside of most of what we've seen in past Marvel projects. Effectively introducing expert New York surgeon Stephen Strange -- in a similar fashion to billionaire Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins -- Marvel Studios once again sold me not only with its efficient casting, but also with its phenomenal writing and direction, which worked to bring one of the comics' strangest characters to the big screen.

While its cast was most definitely note-worthy, and its ambitious storytelling showed us that Marvel still knows what they're doing (even if their structure remains redundant), one of the most defining elements of Doctor Strange had to be its visual effects. Balancing on the border between the mind-bending dream sequences of Inception and the whimsical close-combat duels of The Matrix, Marvel's latest blockbuster adventure reeled me in right off the bat with its astounding display of kaleidoscopic action sequences. Whether it sent its characters running up twisting skyscrapers in chase or fending off goons with weapons of magic and light, the visual effects in the film created an exhilarating mystical atmosphere, one that aided the film as it worked to distinguish itself from other superhero films.

With that goal in mind, however, Doctor Strange was not without its missteps. While I'll touch on the film's brilliant -- and controversial! -- casting soon enough, one of the most apparent problems Marvel's latest feature faced was the predictable plot structure it closely followed. With its plot running along the familiar lines of most superhero origin stories, from Marvel's first feature, Iron Man, to even DC's Batman Begins (not just for its hero's journey to find enlightenment somewhere in Asia), while Doctor Strange may appear to be a groundbreaking epic in terms of visual scope, its premise and overall structure remains seeded in the past. While this might not take away much from the film for a casual moviegoer or any fan just seeking a proper comic-book adaptation for the mystical character, for moviegoers who have grown weary of the superhero genre, they might not find the film to be anything new.

That being said, with its plot running through the usual cliches of a superhero origin -- from the tragic or life-altering accident that brings our hero to his/her lowest point to the final battle of wits and strength between the protagonist and his greatest foe -- the film's star-studded cast managed to somewhat mediate the familiar plot. Led by the elegant likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Mads Mikkelsen, Marvel Studios' near-perfect casting again managed to mystify its audience, turning expectations on their ear to deliver some memorable performances. With a suave Benedict Cumberbatch elegantly slipping into the role of Stephen Strange, donning an American accent and a fresh goatee, the actor ended up delivering just the emotionally captivating yet lovably satirical performance I hoped he would. Embodying the character's rough arrogance and eventually emotional flexibility as he tackled the mystical arts, Cumberbatch brought a certain cunning to the lead role that was strikingly similar to that of Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark.

The film's supporting players also shined, with the film crafting a generous scope of character development, even for its most minor characters. While some characters may fall into some unavoidable stereotypes, like Rachel McAdams' fellow surgeon Christine Palmer -- who does all she can to not become another helpless damsel -- and Benedict Wong's Wong -- who manages to deliver a stellar performance that unfortunately doesn't get much screen-time -- the more prominent characters of the Ancient One, Karl Mordo, and the villainous Kaecilius evoked a coherent range of performances that gave the film its sharp edge whenever the visuals could not. While Tilda Swinton's gender-bending Celtic sorcerer the Ancient One may have been an risky yet dynamic casting choice that delivered another whimsical -- yet slightly more tame -- performance from the chameleon actress, and Mads Mikkelsen's villain Kaecilius may have displayed a satisfying ounce of the actor's riveting acting ability, the true stand-out performance for me had to be Chiwetel Ejiofor's Karl Mordo. With the actor already defining himself through emotional yet vulnerable performances in films like 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor's meaningful precursor role to the popular Doctor Strange antagonist Baron Mordo managed to be just as cunning and charismatic as Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange.

Overall, while its origin story may hit a snag in its hope to redefine Marvel's commonplace storytelling structure, the latest blockbuster from Marvel Studios was nonetheless a mesmerizing time at the theater. With the film's action delivering a dynamic change from what we've seen in films like Iron Man and The Avengers, and its cast again injecting an emotional brilliance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe by way of charming men in mystical robes and one stereotype-shattering hairless Ancient One, Doctor Strange was a satisfying superhero tale, boosted by great performances and memorable and mystifying atmospherics.

I gave Doctor Strange an 8 out of 10 for its smart casting, its breathtaking visual journey into the mystical realm, and its dynamic audacity to bring yet another fascinating and visually-challenging character from the page to the screen.

Did this review not have enough Cumberbatch for your liking? Are you interested in reading all about the charming actor's exciting career both on and off the screen? Well stay tuned this week for the newest Silver Screen Spotlight, where I focus on the ever-evolving theater and film career of Doctor Strange's Benedict Cumberbatch!        

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