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Film Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

The newest Marvel feature Doctor Strange stars the talented Benedict Cumberbatch as brilliant and arrogant New York neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange who, after a violent car crash, loses the fine motor skills in his hands and journeys halfway across the world to find a cure. At Kamar-Taj, he becomes a student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and learns how to manipulate time and space and enter other dimensions with sorcery. At the same time, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), an ex-pupil of the Ancient One, works to bring world destruction by breaking the shields that protect the Earth from the Dark Dimension. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, one of the Ancient One’s loyal followers; Rachel McAdams plays Christine Palmer, Strange’s colleague and ex-girlfriend; and Benedict Wong plays the mononymous Wong, the humourless librarian of Kamar-Taj.

Mainly a visual spectacle, Doctor Strange revels in fractals and other math-based designs created out of the architecture of real and imagined worlds. Looking like Inception on drugs, the ability of characters to enter multiverses and alter the laws of physics means that highly decorative interiors and glittering cityscapes often morph, ripple, and refract into fantastic, prismatic mosaics as heroes and villains show off their skills. Later, when the power to manipulate time enters the mix, a standard set-piece battle goes down in reverse.

Regarding the white-washing controversy of the canonically Tibetan Ancient One, the filmmakers indelicately push forward scenes set in Hong Kong. As one of the “three most important cities in the world” alongside London and New York (according to the film, of course), Hong Kong is home to one of the three sanctums that Kaecilius targets in order to remove the protective magic that keeps Earth from being absorbed by the Dark Dimension.

Cumberbatch is expectedly excellent in his role, although his American accent occasionally slips, especially when his character gets angry and shouty. His Strange is clever and egotistical in a very different way from his turn as Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock. Strange is self-assured and worldly whereas Sherlock is plagued with inner demons and socially obtuse. Unfortunately, the script focuses almost completely on his character, leaving the rest of the incredible supporting cast rather disadvantaged. The mature talents of Swinton, Ejiofor, and Mikkelsen bring just enough to their simplistic characters but will probably leave most viewers wanting, although the Ancient One makes for a great, Willy Wonka-esque guide of the multiverses and, if the end-credits are anything to go by, Mordo will be back on screen soon.

In terms of plot, Doctor Strange is pretty straightforward and the final confrontation is more a battle of ingenuity than brute force. The film’s weak points may be that emotional beats teeter on cliché, character motivations are somewhat under-developed, and some of the choices made in the story are terribly unrealistic (especially the hospital scenes, which feel weirdly rushed). Small inclusions of humourous moments also fall flat, as the characters don’t have nearly the same amount of easy energy between them as the Avengers do and the jokes seem beneath them. Not to say that the film is terrible; it’s actually very enjoyable as the visuals and the cast are superb. The movie still looks comic book-y (I mean, Cumberbatch looks exactly like Strange), but Doctor Strange stands apart from the rest of MCU due to its sci-fi scope and the maturity, for better or worse, of its cast.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Cloaks of Levitation

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