I’m not really a big fan of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, for I feel most of them, although pretty good ones, are highly overrated. But setting my personal feelings aside, I have to admit that what Marvel has done for their films deserves a helluva pats on their backs. They select great people to work on their films, they know what the audiences want, and most importantly, they know how to have fun with their assets. The Avengers might be the crown jewel of MCU, but the ever-expanded universe made Marvel start producing other superhero origin stories. And this time, lets meet DOCTOR STRANGE.
For an origin story, the story of this doctor might be a dime a dozen. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly intelligent, highly succesful neurosurgeon. After a car crash had damaged the nerves on his hand, his career and personal life started to crumble. A former patient of his, who magically healed from a severe trauma that had left him handicapped before, directed him to Kamar-Taj, a secret sanctum located in Nepal. There he met ‘the leader’ of Kamar-Taj, who goes by the name of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and one of the masters, Mondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Sceptical at first, The Ancient One then introduced him into a psychedelic world and magic beyond his wild mind. Little did he know, his learning in Kamar-Taj not only just about the treatment, but it would also lead him into a mystical war beyond this universe.
Ten years ago, a film like DOCTOR STRANGE, a relatively unknown superhero with sorcerer-like magical powers, would be a very big gamble for the studio. Marvel also took a risk on hiring Scott Derrickson to helm this film. Derrickson’s repertoire, which includes mostly decent-at-best horror films, although not a bad collection per se, is not outstanding either. But Marvel’s bet paid off. What Derrickson did to DOCTOR STRANGE is worthy of any praise. The script, written by Derrickson himself along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, managed to make a rather unoriginal, by-the-book story into a very tight one. There were no dull moments. All of the scenes never felt like a misstep. All the characters have a clear motivation and not just a mere one dimensional personalities, including the villain; the misguided former student of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and even the rather underwritten love-interest, dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams)
What really took me by surprise was the jokes were well-delivered and strategically placed so it did not ruin the pacing and the whole flow of the movie. Almost every character had their moments. Thankfully, one scene-stealer, Strange’s magic cape, did not become too comical to avoid this film to be more…Disney-fied. I also like the way they touched Strange’s medical background, and the fact he is a doctor not just for show either. His dilemma on the Hippocratic oath and being a ‘master’ who kills, and that pericardiocentesis on a cardiac tamponade scene was on point. Even the final battle scene, Strange did not really rely on his strength, but more his brain and wit. Well, and a little bargaining too.
There were many who said the effects shown on the trailer/previews to be Inception-like. But it’s good to know that the end product offered more than just a been-there-done-that visual. In fact, it went beyond that. The trippy, dream-like effects are a feast for the eyes. And although anti-gravity fight scenes are no way near original, but it does not mean the ones demonstrated here were mundane. The action set-pieces were stunning and beautifully-choreographed. Other than the psychedelic setting, the Nepal atmosphere also made this film a breath of fresh air in the MCU body of work. And the beautiful score by Michael Giacchino also complemented the scenes.
But the true strength of this film lies on its A-grade performers. Cumberbatch really hit the nail on the head. At first, I was a bit concerned because from the looks of it, Stephen Strange might be just another arrogant-but-genius character we’ve seen so many times before, both from Marvel (Tony Stark) and Cumberbatch himself (Sherlock). Boy was I wrong. He accomplished on depicting ‘an asshole with heart’ in just the right amount. And the transition from a know-it-all into a more grounded, more humble individual was portrayed really good by Cumberbatch.
And as we have come to expect, Tilda Swinton as the genderless mentor (whitewashing aside, cause it’s just like beating around the bush at this point) was impressive and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius brought gravitas to the list of Marvel villains. Ejiofor, whose character will surely be extended, was also good on hinting the path Mordo will go. One problem that bugged me a little was how underwritten Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer was. But even so, McAdams still managed to utilize what she had and left a very good impression. Let’s hope her character will be more developed on future entries.
But overall, maybe what made me really like DOCTOR STRANGE was that this film has that sense of familiarity of a fun Marvel movie, but at the same time still gave us the mind-bending aspect that was far cry from all the things MCU has ever done before. All facets on this film worked like a charm. The visual, the action, the script, the performances. Yes, there were still some minor shortcomings, but for me, Derrickson and co really did wonders for this film. Bravo. [A-/B+]