Doctor Strange has a familiar plot structure. I know. It’s *so* shocking that a Marvel Cinematic Universe Production would take the same playbook for all their origin stories and apply it to their attempt at launching a hero. It’s a problem that often plagues these comic book adaptations, using the old steps trod by the first Iron Man nearly a decade ago. We’ve become accustomed to the story of an arrogant man suffering a terrible accident, being humbled by facing a threat bigger than himself, finding his way with a newfound ability and facing off against a villain who’s a bit more generic with his loyal and lovable side characters. Now, with all that firmly being established… this isn’t necessarily a bad practice in theory. Director/writer Scott Derrickson and his writing partner C. Robert Cargill are keenly aware of how these tropes play out. They’re aware of the fact that this construct is necessary, but decide to warp the pieces to their will. It’s very much like Dr. Stephen Strange’s abilities to bend time and space; he wants to break the rules of logic and reason, but realizes he has to do it while keeping the various dimensions intact.
Within those confines, Doctor Strange excels pretty hard at pushing the boundaries of what Marvel can do in terms of warping the reality they’ve held. This takes the next leap beyond the “Magic is Science” realm of Thor and firmly plants it in the multi-dimensional package of cosmic wonder. We’re not just looking at a glorious rainbow bridge to a fantasy kingdom explained through a simple portal. We’re talking massive dimension hopping. Realms that exist within a finger’s grasp of our own reality opened by mystical sorcerers. In other words, the kind of stuff that Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko blew people’s minds with in the early 60s. There’s a scene early on where Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) decries the idea of a spiritual otherworldly construct and is propelled into an elaborate acid drenched tour through time and space by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Right from there, we’re long past the idea of aliens with red capes and hammers being our main suspension of disbelief. Now, we have to contend with interdimensional travel, ghostly apparitions and spell conjuring.
It’s the equivalent of Tony Stark building his initial suit done with the crazy trippy perspective of a mystic hero. One who becomes aware of the consequences of his actions on a massive scale rather than just Earth. Of course, the plot does have to focus on an antagonist named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) having specific eyes on Earth for it’s particular interdimensional potential. Again, Doctor Strange is no stranger to the formula here, but the stakes are inherently higher than even any of the Avengers features. Derrickson’s boundless imagination in terms of bizarre cosmic imagery gives us a sense of scale for the threats that unfold. Even if Kaecilius’ motives are as underwritten as usual Marvel faire, there’s more individuality in terms of the potential effects. This puts more of a burden on Stephen Strange to quickly get a grip on these skills in order to combat larger darker forces, allowing for more creative spins on stuff like the hero vs villain climactic fight or our hero learning from a more experienced teacher.
While briefly referenced earlier, the elephant in the room should be more directly addressed. Tilda Swinton’s role as The Ancient One seems a bit off putting given the inherent whitewashing on display. Some can make the argument that what matters is who fits the role best and admittedly Swinton carries the mystique, grace & badass mastery that the part needs quite well. Yet, it’s a bit off to see her as the elder statesman of a monastery in Nepal when there’s already little Asian representation in Doctor Strange beyond a stereotypical Confucius looking male and Benedict Wong as a stern no-nonsense element of comedic relief. Even removing the offensive awkwardness, that casting and lack of representation feels out of place for the film’s overall attempt at laying out the origins of the mystical and general diversity they’re striving for in terms of magical hot spots around the world. When you already have London and New York as other major players, a few more prominent Asian sorcerers in the Hong Kong Sanctum might have been a bit more grounded.
Then again, much like Swinton, Wong and the rest of the supporting cast slips into their roles rather splendidly no matter how hampered they could be by their limited role storywise. Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt and Michael Stuhlbarg take a similar track in the more Earthbound scenes; taking advantage of what little they’re given for solid emotional and comedic punch. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo is probably the best example of all of this, using the limited exposition heavy role he’s given to slowly peel back the layers of a man reborn and seemingly betrayed by his new world outlook once more details come to light. Even Mads Mikkelson has more than a few moments to show off his Hannibal style charms between bouts of “Marvel Villain Syndrome.”
As for our titular role, Benedict Cumberbatch manages to add more humility to Doctor Strange than his usual penchant for cold alien roles. The initial swagger of the over confident surgeon believably transforms into a man more aware of his burden. A man arc is clearly based on the traditional Chosen One narrative, but with the consistent fear of failure that makes his position seem believable. Probably the most impressive asset Cumberbatch has to display here is his abilities as a physical performer, making many scenes against these elaborate special effects sequences feel far more grounded than they really should in theory.
It may seem like I’ve been dismissing Doctor Strange for being a bit more impressive than it’s predictable story. That’s not the intention. Rather than being mildly more impressive than the traditional Marvel A to B to C storyline, Doctor Strange takes the formula and stretches its limitations about as far as the fabric can be elongated. Filmmaking after all is about compromise, especially when you’re dealing with a cinematic universe as large as Marvel. So, Scott Derrickson and his team took that challenge and created something that’s as experimental and crowd pleasing as a $165 million blockbuster can be. Full of warped visuals, charming characters and a decently subversive take on the familiar, Doctor Strange is far more chancy than its beats would initially seem to display. That’s more than commendable after a summer of lame duck blockbusters with effects renders that had even more cash at their disposal. Still, hopefully Marvel will be able to stretch its wings further with plot progression in the future. Or at the very least throw in more stuff like hands growing out of hands to spice things up.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Hands Coming Out of Hands
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