Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange movie review.

Doctor Steven Strange, The Sorcerer Supreme, is one of the most out there comic book creations in Marvel's storied history. Often very much a psychedelic product of his 60's creation, the character's mastery of the metaphysical and mystic manipulation has always made for a tricky transition from the panels to the screen, which is really saying something when that same universe was occupied by men with spider powers and vampire hunters.

Yet in the midst of the now ongoing and wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, wherein the studio had managed to craft an interconnected continuity where intergalactic mercenaries and the Norse god of thunder now co-exist alongside Iron Man, it seemed as appropriate a time as any to finally reintroduce the Master of the Mystic to the silver screen. At once trippy, philosophical, and entertaining (if somewhat predictable), Doctor Strange is another rock solid entry within the MCU.

When caught in a disastrous car crash that renders his hands in near-total disrepair, renowned and arrogant neurosurgeon Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) quickly falls into a downward spiral of desperation and bitterness. When his search for a treatment leads him to a remote sanctuary in Nepal, overseen by the mysterious and omniscient Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), he soon discovers deeper secrets within the sanctuary, specifically the masters and students residing there possessing the power to bend and control the very fabric of the universe. While honing his own abilities, a scornful and disillusioned former pupil of the Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) leads his own group of rogue mystics to break the seals protecting the earth, and summon the dark demon Dormammu. Now with his new powers, and with The Ancient One's faithful servant Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at his side, Strange will now set out to defeat the former master, on his way to become the Sorcerer Supreme.

Despite their continued success both in critical and commercial terms, it's not hard to sense a feeling of fatigue recently within the MCU. Doctor Strange serves as yet another venture into the origin story angle, in a market where such a presentation-style is quickly becoming overused. On paper, the way that the film presents these familiar beats are nothing special, falling into an easy formula without very much in the way of surprise, which I feel those most tired of Marvel's recent efforts will particularly find annoyance in, and only Strange's general unfamiliarity among mainstream audiences seems to justify its inclusion. Still, while these beats may be tired, their sincere overall execution on the screen proves to be effective and lean, pacing itself between plot developments very well, and managing to add some needed adrenaline and intriguing characterization to make up for it.

Largely, the film relies on your feelings and interest in the film's title character to carry it through. Donning his best impression of Gregory House, Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific in the main role. While not straying too far from his established comfort zone of arrogant and intelligent individuals such as Alan Turing and Sherlock, and something of a mystical mirror image to Tony Stark, how the film and Cumberbatch himself are able to subvert these traits and ground the character's central narcissism is commendable. A firm skeptic driven to bitterness near the film's beginning, the film is wise to establish a charming sense of humanity underneath all the ego, and the character's utter astonishment of the indescribable sights surrounding him, and his ability to channel that ego into self-repair both physically and emotionally make for a splendid character arc.

Supporting characters prove to be something of a hit and miss case, with the biggest hit among them belonging to Tilda Swinton's Ancient One. A terrific performance that probably makes for the most understated in the universe yet, despite the fact that The Ancient One is always within a very poised and gracious stance and mood, never once do you doubt the immense power and command she wields. Rarely if ever does she raise her patient  voice, and yet you're always left on edge, knowing that any accidental or aggressive slip of the tongue could lead to a swift and powerful response. At her loyal side, soon becoming a strong ally to Strange is Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo, who actually proves to be one of the more layered and intriguing of the cast of characters. Without giving any spoilers away, his personal progression in the film is a very grey area, with the character largely being built-up to serve a greater purpose in future MCU films, but also showing a strong drive and support for the overall narrative here, and making fine use of Ejiofor's talents.

One vice the Marvel films have always had trouble overcoming were its central antagonists, and it's only been with a few exceptions that they've been able to craft fully realized villains, oftentimes wasting their actors like a weekly Law & Order guest star. That said, while his character here is still not much to write home about, at least Mads Mikkelson's Kaecilius possesses something resembling depth. The film does its best to showcase the personal divide and a sense of betrayal between him and his former master, yet still feeling a bit limp in execution, although Mikkelson does manage to give the villain a genuine presence regardless. That said, by far the weakest element of the film is the romance between Strange and Christine Palmer, played here by Rachel McAdams. It's a throwaway tool in the narrative in order to further humanize Strange, but Christine is so barely utilized and lost n the shuffle, and McAdams (like most movies) struggles to give much of a standout performance, that she becomes more pointless an inclusion than Natalie Portman was to the Thor films.

Aside from whatever fleeting glimpses there are to Marvel's overall universe (ie. The Avengers and Infinity Stones), Doctor Strange also works very well as a standalone venture. Taking on more of a philosophical and multi-dimensional scope than its preceding cousin films, director Scott Derrickson takes all of the potential that the Astral and metaphysical worlds allow (while still grounding it in a sense of belonging with Captain America and Iron Man), and unleashes all of the trippy and hallucinogenic world building in a flurry of visual creativity. The action set-pieces prove to be an especially appealing showcase of the film's insane visual splendor, shifting and bending cities and settings like a continually twisting and turning Rubik's Cube, providing for some of the most outlandish yet dazzling imagery of the MCU yet. Doctor Strange himself also gets a fantastic main theme courtesy of Michael Giacchino, who manages to break free of the universe's admittedly anonymous and inconsistent musical mold with a terrific and instantly memorable score, if a bit similar in style to his Star Trek efforts.

It may still be far from perfect, but Doctor Strange is still largely another success from Marvel's studio, rising mainly from the strength of its well slected cast, and the creativity of its twisty visuals. But if there's anything to be particularly excited for regarding the film, it's where all of this can go in any potential sequels. With a compelling groundwork having been laid both in character and in world building, promising to be even wilder with the insanity of the cosmic manipulation and the establishment of key characters promising more gripping drama, the future of the Doctor looks to be in good hands... pardon the pun.

**** / *****

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