Review: Doctor Strange

Uh-oh, looks like the good folks at Marvel Studios have done it again!!!

I can imagine the distinguished competition trolling the interwebs again with that conspiracy bit about Rotten Tomatoes’ critics being paid shills of Disney/Marvel, but with the film running (as of Nov.6, 2016) at a commendable 90%, who’s to argue?

The comparisons between the titular hero and Iron Man’s Tony Stark run beyond the facial hair and glamorous lifestyles.  Sure, Tony gets captured by terrorists and builds himself an armoured suit from scraps to escape them, but Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is practically a victim of his hubris.  An esteemed neurosurgeon whose career provides him the comforts of a swank flat, a drawerful of Jaeger-LeCoultres and a Lamborghini, it all comes tumbling down when he crashes his sweet ride on a mountain road (see – toldyaso!!!  Using your smartphone on the road….tsk tsk tsk tsk!!!)

Next thing we know, the healer becomes the one seeking healing for his own hands, severely banged-up as a result of the accident.  Just when the wonders of Western medicine was going to throw its hands up in despair, he hears of some paraplegic in the city named Pangborn who miraculously gains back the use of his legs after visiting some place in the East called “Kamar-Taj”.

Strange, now sporting facial hair that would draw Daniel Bryan‘s envy, then gets to meet “The Ancient One” (a lovingly icy Tilda Swinton) who inititally rebuffs him as one unworthy of her time; like all wanna-be heroic apprentices, he wins her over through sheer dogged persistence (anything to get his motor skills – crucial in his medical practice – BACK!!!).  During his stay in Central Asia (but NOT in Tibet!!!), he also gains the support of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who then initially trains him in martial arts, and eventually Wong (Benedict Wong), the custodian of the ancient tomes.

That egocentric hotshot neurosurgeon is humbled when The Ancient One (TAO for short) entices him to open his mind and explore his subconscious; hereby commences his evolution to the Sorcerer Supreme, as lavishly told in jaw-dropping wide-angles and jump-cuts.  Steve also takes ample time to brush up on his magic and sorcerous knowledge, much to the bemusement of Wong (thanks, Beyoncé!!!).

All that training does come in handy since a renegade pupil of TAO named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, in a rather thinly written role) has gathered similar minded sorcerers to form a splinter group.  Their aim is to bring forth the cosmic demon Dormammu by disabling the three main Sanctum Sanctorums scattered across the world – first London, then New York and Hong Kong.

There is a foreboding sense of familiarity with the material, as I have noted above, since there are uncanny parallels in the heroic paths taken by both Stephen Strange and Tony Stark.  Both of them high-living, hard-partying (especially in Stark’s case) professionals, aces in their chosen fields, humbled by circumstance and finding their heroic calling along the way.  For Stark, it is dogged resourcefulness; in Strange’s case, it is opening one’s mind to other possibilities….other realities, even.

Director Scott Derrickson has to be commended for near-faithfully replicating the eye-popping psychedelia of Steve Ditko’s original panels, particularly with Strange’s eventual show-down with  Dormammu. The film’s promotional trailers have raised obvious comparisons to Inception; however, the fight sequences – especially the New York chase sequence between Strange and Kaecilius, featuring a (spoiler alert!) Stan Lee cameo (end of spoiler alert) – threaten to blow Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus out of the water.  Cityscapes fold and unfold like paper fans while hallways stretch and shrink.

As for the performances, both Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton earn top marks for their portrayals of Stephen Strange and The Ancient One respectively.  Whitewashing be damned,  Swinton’s gentle demeanour only serves to accentuate the near-omnipotence of her character (check her OWN fight scenes against Kaecilius and his minions that open the film).   The musical score by Michael Giacchino (whose CV includes the TV series Lost and the Pixar movies Ratatouille and The Incredibles,to name a few) includes this soaring gem:

…that should not look out of place in a ’70s  Yes or Pink Floyd concept album.

If there is one major weakness against the film, it is in the seemingly rushed writing (par for the course in the MCU); Doctor Strange has among the richest and most potentially powerful rogues’ galleries in comics (be it Marvel or DC), yet we are presented with a literal stepping-stone in the form of Kaecilius, killer eye make-up be damned. Rachel McAdams egregiously wastes her talent in her role as Strange’s colleague-cum-love interest; hazarding a guess, she could turn out to be a human incarnation of the Sorcerer Supreme’s apprentice/consort Clea, which is a good angle to work to in a sequel. It is testament to the sheer weight of the Marvel brand name that the filmmakers can get away with a decapitation (in silhouette) at the film’s opening, as well as Strange calling Kaecilius an “asshole”, pretty jarring when this film is being released using Disney’s marketing muscle.

It can’t get any WORSE than this though….

Hopefully the sequel would also treat us not just to (more) Dormammu but also his equally villainous sister Umar as well as Shuma-Gorath in all his its eldritchian glory.

 

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