Sunday, November 6, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016) Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong,  Michael Stuhlbarg,  Benjamin Bratt,  Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton, Directed by Scott Derrickson. Screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill. Based on the Doctor Strange comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Produced by Kevin Feige. Runtime: 121 minutes. USA. Color. Fantasy, Science Fiction, Action

The 14th entry in the seemingly never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has opened with the usual bang this past weekend. Once again Marvel is digging deep into their vault, pulling out a relatively unknown superhero and putting them on the screen. We've seen them do this before with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Ant-Man (2015) and they've done it again with Doctor Strange. The films have all been successful at the box-office, even though the films have not always been as good as they might be.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a self-obsessed brain surgeon who finds his livelihood and self-esteem at risk when his hands are damaged beyond rehabilitation in a car accident. When his colleague and sometime lover, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), tries to help, he turns her away. During his rehab, he hears that Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic, managed to cure himself; Dr. Strange wants to know how. Jonathan tells him that he went to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal and Strange follows his path.

But the cure isn't medical, it's more magical, and Strange learns at the feet of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic mystic, and her right-hand man, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Strange is a voracious student and soon becomes a master sorcerer which puts him on a collision course with Dormammu of the Dark Dimension (Cumberbatch) and his minion, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who want to, wait for it, take over the world.

While all the films in the MCU are CGI dependent, Doctor Strange takes that to a new level, sort of think of it as Harry Potter meets Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010). Doctor Strange, who first appeared in comics in 1963, has been around long before the boy wizard was a twinkle in J.K. Rowling's eye, but his cinematic presence does draw some comparisons to that cinematic series since both deal with sorcerers and spells. But Doctor Strange goes places Harry never did. The mystical side of the story and the journey to a holy "man" to learn the mystical ways also recalls Nolan's Batman series.

A small sample of the special effects that dominate Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange has, perhaps, the most accomplished cast to appear in a Marvel movie. Tilda Swinton won an Academy Award for her role in 2007's Michael Clayton. Chiwetel Ejiofor was nominated for his lead performance in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Rachel McAdams was nominated for her role in Spotlight (2016). Cumberbatch has also been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Imitation Game (2014). These actors give the film a certain serious gravitas that the actors and script always seem to be working to balance.

There is humor amongst the special effects, though not as much as Deadpool (2016) or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some laughs are part of the Marvel-formula, as these films try very hard not to take themselves too seriously. Also true to form, the stories make changes as they are adapted from the pages of a comic book for the big screen. If you're like me, and have never read Doctor Strange, you might not notice that the Ancient One was originally not Celtic or a woman, but a Tibetan Man, which makes more sense given the placement of the story in Nepal. But if you don't know that, then it really isn't bothersome, as Swinton does a good job with her role.

Tilda Swinton channels her inner Tibetan man as the Ancient One.

For the most part, all the acting is good, which is another part of the formula. While I'm not a huge fan of Cumberbatch, he does do well as the titular Strange. Chiwetel Ejiofor is always interesting in the roles I've seen him in, going back to Serenity (2005), the film designed to bring closure to Joss Whedon's broken TV series, Firefly. He really has a presence. Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best known as TV's Dr. Hannibal Lecter, also demands the screen when he's on. He seems to have the face for villains. The only one who really feels underused is Rachel McAdams. Her role, which I believe was changed from love interest to past lover, seems almost to be an after thought to the story.

Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring
a lot of acting gravitas to their roles in Doctor Strange.

While I enjoyed the film, I didn't leave the theater with the same anxiousness to repeat the experience as I had most recently with Guardians. I can't quite shake the feeling that I'm beginning to feel obligated to see the MCU rather than desire to see them at this point, sort of the difference between taking a required course at college as opposed to an elective one. That's not a good way to feel going into a theater or on the way out.

If you're a fan of the MCU, then you will want to or have already seen Doctor Strange. But its a daunting thought that there are eight more films, four of them sequels, planned over the next three years. School's back in session when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits the screen in the "summer" of 2017. Maybe my attitude will change as that is one film I'm looking forward to seeing.

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