Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’

Doctor Strange review
Courtesy of Disney

In the increasingly cookie-cutter realm of Marvel comic-book movies, a little strange goes a long way.

Although Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange” offers very few insights into the childhood of its main character, applying what we know about bullying on American schoolyards, it’s safe to assume it wasn’t easy growing up with a name like Stephen Strange. Perhaps that explains the complex that has driven Strange (that rare superhero who keeps his name after acquiring his incredible new powers) to become such an arrogant New York neurosurgeon, flaunting his skills at work and his Lamborghini Huracán outside the office.

Cut from the same mold as playboys Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman), Strange easily might have become world’s most insufferable superhero. But instead, it’s the very fact of this deeply insecure and wildly overcompensating character’s determination to prove himself — coupled with the setback by which texting while driving cripples his hands and very nearly derails him of that ambition — that makes “Doctor Strange” Marvel’s most satisfying entry since “Spider-Man 2,” and a throwback to M. Night Shyamalan’s soul-searching identity-crisis epic “Unbreakable,” which remains the gold standard for thinking people’s superhero movies.

Yes, this new project shares the same look, feel, and fancy corporate sheen as the rest of Marvel’s rapidly expanding Avengers portfolio, but it also boasts an underlying originality and freshness missing from the increasingly cookie-cutter comic-book realm of late. From this second-tier side character, the studio has created a thrilling existential dilemma in which its flawed hero’s personal search for purpose dovetails beautifully with forays into the occult New Age realm of magic and sorcery where Doctor Strange ultimately finds his calling.

While producer Kevin Feige deserves credit for bringing a master plan to Marvel’s big-screen slate, recruiting A-list talent on both sides of the camera and holding them to aesthetic standards that unify the various projects, those parameters are starting to feel every bit as restrictive as real-world physics can be to less-than-super movies. Like the original pulp comics, which were printed with a standard four-color process that permitted a very limited palette, Marvel movies are all starting to look and sound the same, boasting bright primary colors, magic-hour lighting, and bombastic orchestral scores.

Generally speaking, there’s less room for directors to experiment when introducing new heroes, and yet Doctor Strange’s tangential standing within the Marvel canon allows a welcome degree of freedom, while the supernatural dimension of his gifts permits filmmaker Scott Derrickson to bend the rules a bit more than his peers — not enough, some would argue. Like “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi, Derrickson hails from the world of schlock horror, where he made such seat-jumpers as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” and here, he transitions smoothly to a far bigger canvas (so big that Imax audiences will benefit from more than an hour of footage captured on the company’s large-format digital cameras).

The key is an in-on-the-joke script, which Derrickson co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, that ingeniously navigates major plot potholes even as it saddles its actors with ludicrous dialogue. But what actors! As Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch sheds his British accent but not the attitude, which both attracts and repulses fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, the most competent — and human — of Marvel’s window-dressing girlfriends).

After the accident, Strange seeks advice from a man named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who broke his back, but somehow learned to heal himself. Though skeptical at first, after meeting the former paraplegic on a basketball court, Strange takes his advice and heads east to Kathmandu, where he meets the Jedi-like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his master, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Mordo is a fascinating character whose motives are every bit as complex as Strange’s. Those who wish there were more of him in the film would be advised to stick around through both post-credits bonus scenes.

Meanwhile, much has already been written about the casting of the white-skinned Swinton in a role originally conceived as an old Asian man (as if the world needs yet another Mister Miyagi/Pai Mei stereotype), when the only real disappointment there is that the practically extraterrestrial star wasn’t asked to play the title role — because who is stranger? Swinton already walks this earth in some sort of enlightened state, and it’s no far leap to accept her as an ageless oracle with the power to bend matter and slow time. The latter trick, which turncoat ex-disciple Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) uses for more nefarious purposes, lends the film a staggering visual effects innovation, in which the building-bending seen in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is taken to an extreme that would blow even M.C. Escher’s mind.

Whereas we can generally intuit the “rules” that govern most superheroes and their powers, Doctor Strange’s New Age training puts us in a vulnerable place where seemingly anything can happen: One near-death ER sequence manages to be tense, hilarious, and exhilarating at the same time, while another on a hospital balcony is among Marvel’s most poignant. To counter whatever disorder might result, the film is unusually heavy on exposition, and yet Derrickson understands that’s it’s far more satisfying to show than to explain, impressing with one psychedelic sequence after another. Burn a bit of incense or something stronger before watching, and this already hyper-vivid 3D experience is liable to carry you away entirely, especially when Kaecilius proceeds to fold first staircases and later the streets of New York into an elaborate moving kaleidoscope, in which Doctor Strange proceeds to jump, slip, and slide like a pawn in an elaborate, multi-dimensional chess game.

While it’s frustrating that each of these movies must build to a generic showdown between our superhero and some all-powerful, earth-endangering supervillain, “Doctor Strange” takes that tedious inevitability and spins it off into an alternate Dark Dimension, where wit (both humor and intellect) prevails. That’s an especially apt solution for this particular hero, since he’s been robbed of physical strength: The car crash left Doctor Strange practically handicapped, forcing him to learn tricks and spells to compensate for his lost dexterity. Since his enemies are martial arts experts with post-“Matrix” abilities, he has no choice but to get creative, conjuring shields and teleportation portals from plain air. At one point, facing off against Kaecilius and his henchmen, Strange stumbles across the Cloak of Levitation, a magical cape that proactively comes to his defense, absorbing blows while giving him hints on how to escape the situation.

Such scenes may be good for spectacle, but Doctor Strange’s most fascinating battle is within himself, as he fights first to regain the use of his hands and later to overcome everything he has learned — not only about the laws of physics, but also the social conditioning that taught this workaholic that his self-worth was tied to a job he can no longer perform. The character is literally fighting for his life in this film, and Cumberbatch captures both his humbling and the subsequent recovery of confidence. Here is a man who cockily swore off being an emergency room surgeon because he wasn’t interested in saving one life at a time, only to be rendered useless by his injuries. So, while we might yawn at yet another threat to all mankind, “Doctor Strange” has been presented in such a way that this higher calling restores his ability to help the world entire. We understand that this calling matters to him, even if his motives remain a mystery.

Film Review: 'Doctor Strange'

Reviewed at AMC Century City, Los Angeles, Oct. 20, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 115 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Marvel Studios presentation. Producer: Kevin Feige. Executive producers: Louis D'esposito, Victoria Alonso, Stephen Broussard, Charles Newirth, Stan Lee. Co-producer: David J. Grant.

Crew

Director: Scott Derrickson. Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D): Ben Davis. Editors: Wyatt Smith, Sabrina Plisco.

With

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden.

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  1. William Terrance says:

    Seriously? How is Doctor Strange, “Marvel’s most satisfying entry since “Spider-Man 2,” when Marvel had absolutely nothing to do with Spider-Man 2? Should Bram Stoker be responsible for Vampires in Brooklyn? Its about the same level of input as Marvel had in Spider-Man 2. I guess you don’t understand how movies work though, its kinda complicated (y’know, like Trump discovered health care is). Just in case you need a refresher on movie making, the right to make movies about Spider-Man (until 2016), the Fantastic Four, the X-Men (including Wolverine), the Hulk (until the Avengers), the Punisher (until Netflix’s Daredevil version), and Ghost Rider (the Nic Cage versions) has nothing to do with Marvel Studios.

    Just in case you are a Trump supporter (and therefore unable to understand the difference between facts and reality) I’ll spell it out more clearly. Marvel Studios made Doctor Strange, they have NEVER made a Spider-Man movie. Get movie production right, or get a new job.

  2. Jr says:

    Stopped reading after you called Doctor Strange a “second-tier side character”. You obviously have no clue of who Doctor Strange is in the comic book world. You should have just given an honest review from the perspective of someone without any comic book knowledge rather than make things up like above to make it seem like you know about comics. The Spiderman 2 comparison is further proof of this.

  3. On a Technical Note -The Warner Brothers VFX supervisor i’m working with at the moment said it was the most Complex VFX he had seen.

  4. Rick says:

    Author, your comparison to Spider-Man 2 is very misleading; although Spider-Man is a Marvel character, that movie was made by Sony, not my Marvel Studios. Spider-Man two was not made by the same picture house as Doctor Strange, so maybe it’s your favorite marvel character since then… but you biffed it on the delivery.

  5. Joe says:

    Waaaay too many jokes in this movie. While there’s no arguing the financial success of their always formulaic output, they can’t make a serious movie to save their lives. Just because they change genres doesn’t mean that they are breaking boundaries. Great visuals but all Marvel movies are still remakes of Iron Man. Hope.WB/DC don’t make the same mistake, but it now looks like they will.

    • Kieren says:

      your a faggot joe

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  7. mightymad says:

    sigh…

    Once again: Marvel Studios has nothing to do with Spider-man 2 – that was made way before they even existed.

    You work for Variety, Peter… you should know better.

  8. harry georgatos says:

    Doctor Strange has intriguing and at times captivating concepts of astral projections and the infinite multiverse dimensions that become a 3D head and eye spinner. The visuals are whats going to get people in the cinema. The story is a conventional straight-forward origin story without the gravitas and emotional commitment of BATMAN BEGINS which it tries to resemble. Scott Derrickson is trying to piggy-back on Christopher Nolans visual legacy. Captivating visuals with amateurish story-telling. I suspect there’s an extended cut to this film at a 130 minutes cut down to 114 minutes. Still this could have been better but Marvel studio influence cut down on the narrative complexity for a wider mainstream audience who doesn’t want to think. Hasn’t anyone in Hollywood learned that story complexity can work as evidenced in Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy and the complexity of INCEPTION!! The climax with the Dark Lord is sketched with obvious computer drawings that takes away from the visual brillance of the rest of the film. Still the narrative should have been more challenging.

  9. John says:

    I was skeptical about “Doctor Strange” after watching the trailers and reading the reviews. I just came back from seeing it, this tops all Marvel movies, the only one comes close is “Guardian of the Galaxy”. This is not your typical superhero science fiction Marvel movie, it puts everyone into the realm of sorcery, where special effects immediately becomes a make belief. Right from the beginning the movie suspends the audience from reality, it hammers you with a fantastic, high velocity kaleidoscope folding city cat and mouse chase (be ready if you watch it on 3D, it will spin your vision like no other movie). Then the story reverts back to reality, inside a modern day New York hospital. “Doctor Strange” deals a lot with Buddhist philosophy, not only mind over body, but drawing power of nature and dark forces to heal and transcend. Where the story prevails is it introduced these religious elements right from the beginning (20 minutes into the film), when Doctor Stranger went to Nepal to meet the Ancient One, and she explained all of it in the monastery. From there the first VFX sequence took place where Doctor Strange’s out of body Astral spirit went on an express loop of the universe, the scene is reminiscent of “2001 Space Odyssey” finale times 10. The second action sequence took place inside a Victorian mansion in London, where Doctor Strange accidentally crashed into the window display of “Cloak of Levitation”, this scene mixed action with a lot of humor, especially the way Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) was captured. The third action scene is another kaleidoscope folding city chase scene, but done brilliant, where each folding sequence moves faster than your eyes can keep up. The production team must have spent 12 months working on the previs – it is pretty incredible. What I liked about the finale is it didn’t rely on action, explosion to end it, instead it was Doctor Strange using wits and self sacrifice to defeat the Dark Dimension (by bringing infinite time loop into a dimension where time does not exist). There are two post credit scene, first one with Thor, and the second one with a foreshadow of Mordo evolving into “Darth Vader” like character. Stay tuned for the sequel.

    “Doctor Strange”, simply the most entertaining Marvel movie ever. I just wish it was longer, couldn’t get enough of it.

  10. Charles says:

    I really, REALLY wish Debruge would stop reviewing popcorn flicks, as a whole.

  11. Nick Tishko says:

    Fact: The last good Marvel movie was Iron Man 1. If you can’t wait to see indestructible people beat on each other for the better part of ~90 mins, with a plot written by an 8 year old, please do watch this movie, LoL. Super hero movies suck..they used to be good, but no one is even trying anymore. BTW, where is Christopher Nolan nowadays? Is he ever doing another comic movie? It seems that only he can save the movie going public from this 10th rate tripe that Hollywood passes off as a comic book movie. Ugg.

  12. Michael Mayo says:

    I saw it. I loved it. Yours is the smartest and best review yet, for what my opinion is worth. (Extra bonus for intellectual geeks – look at what Stan Lee is reading; one of Marvel’s slyest jokes yet.)

  13. Carl says:

    Well, that told me a lot more about the reviewer than about the movie. Waste of electrons.

  14. Giacomo Leopardi says:

    Sorry — Cumberbatch has turned me off in everything he’s been in, and I will be passing on this one. Marvel screwed up when it cast him as Strange and Tilda as the Ancient One — the whitewashing was very blatant. And Cumbie can’t do an American accent to save his life – have you heard him try? It’s annoying as heck and it totally brings you out of the story. Get a dialect coach, man. Nope, nope, nope.

    • David says:

      How do you know his accent brings you out of the story if you haven’t seen the movie?

    • Rex says:

      Attention everyone!! Attention!! We can now safely avoid seeing this movie because Giacomo Leopardi has issued his ultimate pronouncement on its merit. It is therefore unequivocal that this movie should be removed from circulation because, frankly, no one will now bother to see it. Here endeth the lesson.

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  15. Bob says:

    Yes of course they all sound the same.. Skywalker (read Disney) does the sound for all these films. A supposedly creative place. Not since Disney took it over .

  16. The last six Marvel movies are all different..how is GOTG similar to Civil War or how is Ant-man the same as Winter Soldier.. that’s a really weird comment..they start to feel the same, really? How so? How was Thor the same as Captain America:First Avengers? So weird ..

  17. stevenkovacs says:

    So, you liked it then?

  18. Wayne says:

    One of my favorite comic books as a kid because of its mind bending look at the universe (along with Fantastic Four when Reed Richards creates a portal to another dimension), I’ve been looking forward to this for some time. The review makes the film sound promising.

  19. Fred says:

    Sorry, but anyone who begins by saying that “Unbreakable” is the “gold standard for superhero movies” has lost all credibility.

    That said, The movie does look like it’s going to be great.

    • Ken says:

      “Unbreakable” is damn good…and it’s held up extremely well over the years. Give it another look-see. Samuel Jackson is brilliant.

      • Larry says:

        Agreed. Unbreakable is a fantastic super-hero-art-film. Focused and cerebral. Always wished for a sequel.

      • Gerard Kennelly says:

        “Unthinkable” is damn good…and it’s held up extremely well over the years. Give it another look-see. Samuel Jackson is brilliant.

  20. People are saying the film is bad plotwise because it follows a familiar plot structure. How is having a standard plot structure a negative thing when all genre blockbusters do? Also people are saying Strange himself is a copy of Tony, so there’s no originality within the character’s personal nature itself. What… his behavior, personality, quirks, needs, and growth are just a rip off from Tony Stark? WTF

  21. SteveUK says:

    “…..that makes “Doctor Strange” Marvel’s most satisfying entry since “Spider-Man 2,” Oh dear not much of a Marvel fan than? Better stick to reviewing DC comic book movies.

  22. BillUSA says:

    I remember picking up a copy of Dr. Strange when I was slightly taller than a grasshopper but had to put it back on the rack because the owner of the corner store knew my act. That’s the extent of my Dr. Strange knowledge. However, since Benedict Cumberbatch is playing the lead, I’ll see this out of curiosity when it becomes available on Netflix or Amazon.

  23. Drew G. says:

    Why do people get so mad when a Marvel film gets a good review? Can anyone just like more than one thing anymore? Marvel and DC characters are both great. Stop crying.

    Also, to Mr. Debruge, Spiderman 2 was not a Marvel Studios film. Sony has made every Spider-Man film to date. They own the film rights for him and only until recently has Marvel been able to use him in their films after negotiating a deal with Sony to co-produce future Spider-Man films as well as be able to integrate him into the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe story arc. Spider-Man: Homecoming will be the first Spider-Man film in which Marvel Studios has any input.

    • BillUSA says:

      Because there are lazy-minded people who find it easier to go through life without ever exploring the middle ground. They’re the “black-and-white, hot-or-cold. good-and-bad” sort who can’t exist with seeing both sides of anything. I have no time for such people because they bore me so much that it’s almost painful just to listen to them.

    • drldeboer says:

      Go see this film & judge for yourself, preferably in IMAX 3D. I hardly ever comment on critical reviews but the praise is fully deserved in this case.

      • Drew G. says:

        I definitely plan on seeing it. Marvel hasn’t let me down yet. I know a lot of people say Marvel uses the same basic formula for every film but to each their own. I’ve been waiting for these characters to be brought to life since I was a kid, both Marvel and DC. It works for what they are. They aren’t Oscar caliber films but they don’t have to be.

  24. Skip Press says:

    A refreshingly eloquent review of a movie I’m very much looking forward to seeing.

    • Derek Whaley says:

      Technically, Sony is the producer of the Spider-Man series of films working under a license from Marvel Studios with Columbia Pictures handling distribution. And the article above does not directly say that Marvel Studios made Spider-Man, just that Marvel did, and that is technically true since all Marvel Comics films are under the umbrella of Marvel Studios, even if they have licenses to produce independent works, so I’m going to say the author is not entirely wrong, just possibly misunderstanding the complex corporate arrangement.

      • Drew G. says:

        Derek, correct. I fully understand all the character rights amongst all Marvel characters. However, Marvel and Marvel Studios are two different branches of the same company. Marvel as a brand gets an opening credits tag because Spider-Man and all related characters are their intellectual property, but many, many moons ago when Sony purchased the film rights for Spider-Man they gained full creative control of the films. All Spider-Man films to date have been created by Sony with zero creative input from Marvel. For example, when they decided to make his webbing an organic substance that came out of his body rather than be a substance which came out of a device Peter Parker created that was Sony’s idea and Marvel could not tell them they could not do it. If Sony decided they wanted to change Spider-Man’s back story to being a creature from another planet who wore a pink tutu and shot poison spiders out of his nipples, Marvel couldn’t stop them. Last year, the two companies came to an agreement that Marvel and Sony would co-produce future Spider-Man films so Marvel could have creative input (and Sony gets to release a better film), Marvel can use the character in their films and all films will be connected.

  25. “Marvel’s most satisfying superhero movie since “Spider-Man 2.””

    How is this news to someone working i the industry?

  26. jojo says:

    How much they pay you to write this? Or did you just copy your name to the top of the studio’s ad?

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