Let me just say this first and foremost – Christopher Nolan, as much as I have a high affinity for Inception, your 2010 thriller has been put on check. We’ve now got a new movie that’s even trippier than anything you could have dreamed.
Marvel Studios has a formula that has worked time and time again. Now on Phase 3 of the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, the studio is finally digging into the well to reward fans for their patience with properties that we’ve demanded for years. For their fourteenth film, Marvel went with a character that isn’t rooted in science nor technology. They opted for Doctor Strange. The announcement of Strange was a game changer for Marvel, as they had yet to delve into the realm of the mystical and the magical. If anyone was expecting an origin tale to be bland and by the numbers – believe you me, Doctor Strange is far from average. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that Strange is arguably the best origin tale the studio has put on screen since 2008’s Iron Man. Ladies and gentleman, say goodbye to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Welcome to the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse.
This is probably one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever been tasked to put into words. For starters, Marvel has once again managed to set forth a marketing plan that doesn’t even spoil a thing. Not even an iota or detail, mainly because all of the footage featured in the various trailers showcases footage from barely the first hour and nothing more. I’m a big believer that if you’ve witnessed a beautiful piece of film, you do not spoil a thing for those aiming to see a film in theaters. So, if anyone out there in Fan Fest Land is looking for a deep review, I apologize in advance – but in no good faith can I ruin a movie this stunningly beautiful and wildly imaginative.
So who exactly does get the credit for Doctor Strange in being the success that it is? Is it director Scott Derrickson? Writers Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and an uncredited Dan Harmon? Actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and others? Or can we actually thank Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for having the gusto to create such a mad character inhabiting such a mad realm?
First, let’s thank Lee and Ditko. Ditko could not receive a much better love letter than what Derrickson has accomplished with Strange. While a good amount of the film is set on Earth (primarily New York City and Kathmandu), there are scenes that rip you out of our realm and into planes of existence, versions of reality, twisted aberrations of what we see and know and fling you out of your mind and contort your eyes into such knots you lose sense of what is real. If Inception dared to ask us to believe if what we saw was real, then Strange throws all questions out of the window and envelops you into such a visual acid trip through a fractured mirror that you may rub your face and check your surroundings to ensure where you’re sitting isn’t imaginary. Every little nook and cranny, angle, and crevice is turned upside down, inside out, and into every direction that you witness expressionist artwork come to life, like a harrowing freefall into a warped Wonderland by way of a funky LSD-fueled descent. By far, Strange has the best visuals that I’ve seen out of a big budget tentpole in years, literally years. If this film doesn’t win an Oscar, it’ll be an outrage from the moment the nominations are announced. Take a look at the below – now picture each and every little piece moving in tandem, but for more than half of the film’s run-time.
Scott Derrickson has yet to fully helm a movie of this magnitude. (Sinister isn’t exactly a six-figure blockbuster with visuals akin to being plucked into the Looking Glass.) Yet, his brilliance and determination to rip Steve Ditko’s imagery direct from the late 1960’s Strange Tales books is what made him the man for the job. The action scenes are a tad familiar in choreography (damn the Captain America movies for upping our expectations) but his ability to keep the camera on the action is what makes his work stand out the most, not to overlook the twisting scenery morphing about like a life-size kaleidoscope on mach 5. The colors aren’t overly bright, as they shouldn’t be, but we get to witness so much psychedelic mayhem at every given moment that the viewer doesn’t lose sight of what’s important. If and when a sequel is greenlit, Derrickson best be at the helm. Doctor Strange can thank its vision on Derrickson’s creativity and determination to deliver.
The movie also works thanks largely to the script. Jon Spaihts is largely responsible for the first draft, so far known for his duties on Prometheus and upcoming on high profile projects like Passengers and Pacific Rim 2. Derrickson and frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill followed up with rewrites, their focus on the dark and twisted on full display in Sinister. Credit has to be given to the care for not trying to make magic exist in reality, but by digging deep into the comic lore to pluck out the right characters, artifacts, and subtle novelties. I would be lying if I wasn’t beaming to see the Eye of Agamotto used properly and even the Cloak Of Levitation up to its tricks. The amount of care given to tireless research is worthy of praise and would be easy to ignore if mishandled during translation from comic to screen. To punch up the script for additional photography, Dan Harmon (best known for both Community and Rick & Morty) was enlisted. Though the determination is hard to make of what his contributions were, if he added humor, he’s done a marvelous job. Though some jokes don’t hit home (some of the bits are pop culture-centric), the bits that do are hilarious and elicit a much needed laugh in a movie that does take itself somewhat serious in dealing with the unknown.
The first person who came to mind in casting Strange was Cumberbatch. (A keen fanboy took a photo of Cumberbatch and used Photoshop to show how the actor would appear as the character – and it was a no-brainer.) Cumberbatch brings about the same pluckiness he has with Sherlock, but imagine Sherlock if he were to be a total self-righteous prick, a know-it-all who insists he handle everything and pushes everyone aside to do the work himself. He’s a genius who believes that science is the answer and his hands are God, saving lives only because it’s the work he does so well. He’s an unlikable douche who can’t see beyond his own self-worth. For the first half hour he’s intolerable, cold, and polarizing. Be this a Marvel movie, Cumberbatch brings a gravitas to the role much like Robert Downey Jr. did when he first became Tony Stark. You want to hate him, but you eventually fall for his charm. I couldn’t foresee any other actor being Stephen Strange (remember – it’s Doctor, because he spent his whole life mastering his craft) and I welcome the chance to see more of the Sorcerer Supreme in future tales. Though, it is damn different to hear Cumberbatch dropping his British accent but he doesn’t ever slip once.
Surrounding him are an solid core of actors that bring life to Strange’s cast of supporting characters. Rachel McAdams, who swore on her life she’d never star in a comic book tale, portrays Christine Palmer (and no – not the Night Nurse as some fans surmised) as the former flame to Strange, who’s easily scared but steadfast in her commitment to saving lives. It’s a shame her role isn’t a tad more fleshed out, but there’s promise in seeing her again if not to bring a more emotional element in her compassion for Stephen Strange. Mads Mikkelsen once again shines as a villain, this time Kaecilius, oozy a dangerous tenacity as he attempts to bring the Dark Dimension to Earth to harmonize humanity with a darker force we can’t even imagine, a worthwhile foe who isn’t a throwaway cooker cutter shell character we’ve seen before. (Marvel is at least improving on their villains, albeit a bit too lethargically.) Benedict Wong, who we’ll see more of in future Marvel installments, does just fine as Wong, the Watson to Strange’s Holmes, though serving the purpose to tutor the good Doctor in the mystic arts. And, as he usually does in most roles he’s awarded, Chiwetel Ejiofor steals scenes as Mordo, another apprentice in magic who works side-by-side with Strange to get him to see there’s a far bigger picture than the former surgeon can comprehend.
Which leads me to Tilda Swinton, who is perfectly (yes – perfectly) cast as The Ancient One. Yes, though the character in the comics is a male, Swinton has always immersed herself with roles that go against type, blending into any character she’s blessed to portray. Though some fans were totally against her casting, I implore you all to give her the benefit of the doubt. She, as always, delivers her A game and once again shines in a role that most likely is not for her at all. Yet, with the level of depth that’s written for her, Swinton makes the Ancient One all her own and does the movie a huge service with her presence.
I do need to rip Marvel Studios for one aspect they’ve lacked in recently – and that’s the musical score. Doctor Strange may finally be the installment that the studio gets on track with the hiring of Michael Giacchino. Long a fan favorite and our generation’s John Williams, Giacchino’s score for Strange blends a very wide variety of instruments to weave composition that’s damn reminiscent of the Beatles’ days in India. Sitars, electric guitar, harpsichord, and a full orchestra weave a sense of mysticism and magic into each scene, not just as a distraction from the narrative but enhancing each scene with a trippy rhythm. Also, Giacchino is able to take a central theme for Strange and stitch the chords inside each moment of musical splendor. (Giacchino, funny enough, also recorded the score at Abbey Road Studios, with Sir Paul McCartney bearing witness and awestruck at how the sounds reminded him of I Am The Walrus.) Going forward, if Marvel can continue to employ composers who want to tell a story than just fill two hours with temp music, then their problem is solved.
And yes – there is is a stinger, as there always is, and it’s damn maddening the little gift horse Marvel has left audiences with this time around. Damnit though, the scene makes perfect sense and is yearning me back to theaters again to see Doctor Strange to see if I missed any cues in particular.
Fourteen movies in and, at this time, Marvel is just rolling. They began the formula shake-up with Captain America: Civil War and continue on their new path with their latest installment. While the mystics really were introduced to audiences earlier this fall on Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (giving us first Ghost Rider and now Mephisto), Doctor Strange is the beginning of a new phase. We’ve gotten used to Marvel’s heroes existing in a real world-esque setting but the rules are out the window. Thanos is looming. The Infinity Stones are floating about the known universe. And now the mystical arts have been revealed, eschewing a bigger universe that isn’t just one world but multiple. To make that leap into a new facet of any comic lore takes a lot of guts and Marvel doesn’t seem to be shy to finally let the chains go. Once again, Marvel has hit another home run. With three movies on the plate for 2017, one wonders how Marvel Studios can keep surprising fans. I say bring it on. We’ve been watching for closing in on a decade. Don’t stop now.
Reber’s Rating – 94/100
(And, no, I’m not ranking Doctor Strange in the MCU. That time is gone now. Just keep them coming, Feige!)