Doctor Strange Marvel

DOCTOR STRANGE Review: Try, Try Again (and It'll Work Out)

Monday, November 07, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Achieving anything is difficult, even something bad. If you can do something well with consistency, that’s a feat of gargantuan proportions. Every now and then you’ll luck out and find yourself to be a fluke master of some task you haven’t prepared for, but most of the time you must practice relentlessly for an extended period of time in order to get to where you want to be. That’s why there’s the adage about having to do things for 10,000 hours to be good at them. It’s something Marvel Studios - with their ever-expanding universe of interconnected films, characters, and storylines - has been practicing since 2008’s Iron Man. In many ways, its newest installment, Doctor Strange, is both the shiniest fruit of Marvel’s formula and its most potent metaphor for how it got to the top of the Hollywood’s success mountain. It is Marvel’s story about itself, except with magic and multiverses thrown in to jazz things up.

Photo credit: Doctor Strange/Facebook

For Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), his life is iteration after iteration of similar experiences. As a high-powered New York City surgeon with miraculous hands (he’s like a glamorized version of Dr. Ben Carson before Carson became the sleepyhead political outsider who wasn’t outrageous enough to defeat Donald Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination), he performs feats of medical wonderment, like repairing a bullet-riddled skull in the nick of time to save a person’s life, then he flirts with his former (future?) flame, a fellow surgeon named Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), whose work in their shared hospital’s emergency room Strange finds to be rather blase and beneath him. He finishes his days by picking out one of his dozens of spectacularly lavish watches to adorn his talented wrist so he looks good while giving highly paid speeches on the specialness of his medical work. With a little of his Sherlock flair for prickly personalities, Cumberbatch plays Strange as arrogant, perpetually holding himself up as God’s gift to humanity.

That is until a car accident causes extensive nerve damage in the doctor’s hands, preventing him from ever having a full range of motion in his previously ultra-dexterous fingers. He cannot sign his own name as anything other than a sloppy, childish scrawl, let alone pick up a scalpel to remove a progressively growing tumor from a patient’s brain. A new routine emerges: seeking out expensive and increasingly unlikely cures for his mangled, weakened hands and pushing away those who cannot help him get back into the operating room. On the mysterious advice of a man (Benjamin Bratt) who was rumored to have started walking after a paralyzing accident, Strange spends his last cent on a trip to India.

Even though it is dressed up in beautifully distracting colors and lights, with a camera that tumbles in ways physics would not allow in pre-CGI days, what follows is a fundamentally simple story about a man learning to deal with the the limitations the universe has given him, to learn to become as adept at his new goal as he can, and to hopefully achieve something important along the way -- in this case, saving the Marvel Cinematic Universe from being swallowed whole by an enormous malevolent space face called Dormammu, summoned by the evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Strange becomes the apprentice of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), whose eerie baldness and calm demeanor lead her to frustrate the overly literal-minded Strange at every turn, forcing him to think more broadly about the possibilities of the universe(s). In one crucial scene she asks him how he became a successful doctor, to which he replies that he spent years practicing and honing his craft. Her cocked eyebrow, as if to say, “No duh, that’s how it works,” is the push Strange needs to take his mystical journey more seriously and to throw himself into a second career as a protector of the multiverse -- probably a lot more nifty than being able to afford a slick sports car with a surgeon’s salary, eh?

Director Scott Derrickson, in his first effort for the Marvel movie factory after making the jump from low-budget horror flicks like Sinister, internalizes the company’s story of working within set constraints. Like Stephen Strange realizing he must work with what he has rather than pining for what used to be, Marvel began small in 2008 with one of its then-lesser known characters, Iron Man, instead of lamenting the fact that they had lost the movie rights to their most marketable assets like Spider-Man (since returned to the brand) and the X-Men via shortsighted licensing agreements with other movie studios. From there, they built a series of movies that featured good-natured adventurism and generally positive vibes directed at a moviegoing public that had been primed to expect increasingly darker stories about the worst of humanity from their comic book movies.

Marvel Studios developed a formula. They begin with the hero’s (or heroes’) origin story, which invariably includes a villain in incredible makeup but with little personality. The lead characters will be witty and engage in tremendous amounts of banter. There is a MacGuffin chase, like the ongoing search for the series’ cache of Infinity Stones. The action is bright and presented handsomely, but it will never push any boundaries for the adventure genre. There will be Easter eggs and shout outs to the fans via acknowledgements of the comic book source material or hints about upcoming installments of the franchise. So on and so forth. Working within these parameters has worked for the most part in every single outing, although the range of quality is typically between “that was fine” (The Incredible Hulk, Thor) to “that was such a blast of (ephemeral) fun!” (The Avengers) -- Guardians of the Galaxy remains the only borderline great picture of the bunch and Avengers: Age of Ultron is probably the only real creative bellyflop. They have honed what they do into the artistic version of a science, and Doctor Strange is among the best implementations of the formula, while perhaps pushing it to places it has yet to go.  

Derrickson, director of photography Ben Davis, and their slew of digital animators have created a multiverse of truly bizarre imagery, with planets that ooze streams of light particles, a trip through a wormhole that looks like a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and a child’s piece of Lite-Brite art, a “mirror dimension” made up of crystallized pixels that look like disco balls, and cities that bend and snap and twist like gears in a clock. Shannon Mills’s sound design makes the shifting cityscapes sound like a roller coaster cranking its way up an impossibly tall hill. While there is room for improvement in the fight choreography and in Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith’s overly choppy film editing within those hand-to-hand combat sequences (a staple of Marvel projects), these do not detract from what is overall a mind-warping and often deliriously funny ride through the oddest corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

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