Published on November 4th, 2016 | by Damien Straker
Doctor Strange – Film Review
Reviewed by Damien Straker on the 4th of November 2016
Disney presents a film by Scott Derrickson
Produced by Kevin Feige
Screenplay by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton
Music by Michael Giacchino
Cinematography Ben Davis
Edited by Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: the 27th of October 2016
Kevin Feige pulled on his hyper-blade express shoes and dashed for the room. His hip ached less and his arms moved freely whenever he put them on and bounced from the floor and from one wall to another. He tore through the village, whizzing past the orderlies, determined not to let his glow of inspiration become faint light through his hand. “Ten metres” said his wrist-strapped radar device. Inside the room, Marvel lay still, with its long entangled hair falling fast as it squinted through the grey slots on its face. Whenever it spoke, it was a creaking voice that could only muster the same garbled stories from younger days past. Kevin threw the door open and drew back the curtains. His bionic eye rolled and clicked twice. The lenses inside his eye socket automatically accounted for any extra glare in the room. He dumped himself into a sunken chair beside Marvel’s bed. The plunge wasn’t nearly as deep as the breath he took before revealing his plan—the idea that would excite the public to see a film again for the first time since the Great Collapse four years ago. He took Marvel’s bony hand within his own and as their fingers locked, he spoke. “Robert and Gwyneth were reluctant at first but once we pitched it as a ‘re-imagining’ of the first film, not a reboot, they were entranced. We also tripled their salaries.” And with this Marvel shut its swollen eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
This hasn’t happened yet but the candle is burning fast for the studio that has dominated Hollywood by annually standardising superhero films with only cosmetic differences between each entry. While Marvel pleases fanboys and comic book aficionados alike, the predictability of these films and the studio’s resistance to challenge audiences is engulfing it in a war against time that it will never win. It’s true that familiarity and commence drive Hollywood, not originality. Apart from a Chinese comedy, the top ten highest grossing films for 2016 are superhero films, sequels and animated features. Captain America: Civil War is the year’s highest earner to date, typifying Marvel’s box office dominance of making risk-free, derivative action films of varying quality. But despite not being as bloated as Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange magnifies the cracks in Marvel’s once airtight formula and suffers from questionable narrative and casting choices. Though not a DC disaster, Doctor Strange is best summarised by its video game-like sequence where a character enters a time loop and enslaves an opponent by repeating his actions—which is not unlike Marvel’s own commercial stranglehold that fails to justify the free pass given to the studio by critics and audiences each year.
This adaptation of Stan Lee’s 1960s comic book is slow to start. Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a distracting American accent) is an arrogant, wealthy surgeon who used to be involved with Christine (Rachel McAdams) and doesn’t make time for his colleagues like Dr. West (A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg). One evening, Strange is driving to a function, only for his car to veer off the road. He awakens after the crash and faces career-ending nerve damage to his hands as subsequent operations fail to repair them. But Strange learns about a man who underwent special treatment that saved his life. He travels to Asia and is aided by the robe-wearing Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who saves him from a beating and then takes him to visit The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mysterious woman who reluctantly enlists Strange to learn and share magic with herself, Mordor and a librarian named Wong (Benedict Wong). After a mind-expanding vision, Strange starts learning magic spells and teleportation and becomes involved in The Ancient One’s multidimensional battle with a dangerous figure named Kaecilius (Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen). Kaecilius has stolen an important page from a book and is keen to stop time to create a utopia of immortality—a prospect that might cause some Marvel executives to perform cartwheels.
Dr. Strange isn’t the only one to time travel because Marvel and director Scott Derrickson are desperate to return to 2008. The premise of wealthy man whose journey reinvents himself is too similar a parable to Iron Man, minus the same wit and chemistry. The only surprising facet of Strange is the seriousness of its tone, which threatens to veer off into soap opera territory as Strange bemoans his fractured body. Marvel films normally holds a steady tone but Strange is unfocused until it launches its light quips again, but still carelessly dumps its Stan Lee cameo into the middle of an action scene. The dependency on Iron Man robs Dr. Strange of his own personal details. He’s mopey but not as enjoyably arrogant as Cumberbatch’s Sherlock or Alan Turing; it’s wasteful to rein in an actor who excels at playing self-absorbed characters. Meanwhile, the glass of Strange’s apartment illustrates his disconnection from the world but also the character’s shallowness. He is bereft of friends, family or backstory. The film doesn’t develop original traits for him either. His scepticism of magic employs a familiar chorus of comedic punches and all too predictably, his glumness propels him to become a self-reflective gentlemen and an understudy of Harry Potter. The transition from jerk to hero also draws Strange as one of Marvel’s preachiest films, telling us believe in something bigger than yourself and enhancing the soul, while also contributing to the tired theme of ordinary men escaping their physical constraints. The sentimentality is attributable to Scott Derrickson himself, a Christian who has made horror films, such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, that are concerned with faith.
The film is pumped with action and effects, but nothing is tense or stimulating. It’s a flashback in time. The sequences where Strange fights his enemies by jumping through portals and between dimensions are identical to Christopher Nolan’s Inception and merely redress Marvel’s favourite trope of men punching each other. Cities pop up from nowhere, people run along walls and corridors rotate in the middle of the fight scenes. Nolan did it first and it feels weightless watching these pieces unfold because of Strange’s unconvincing lore. The Ancient One tries explaining the use of magic by saying: “We take energy from other universes to make weapons, shields and magic!” The line is indicative of the material’s sketchiness. The thinness of the lore also trips up Strange when it tries landing a shocking revelation about using energy from the dark universe! (What?) Likewise, the most interesting sequences involves the repetition of time, but opens a huge plot hole about how the villains don’t latch onto Strange’s strategy. Marvel itself remains stagnant as political questions linger over the studio’s preference for white actors. The film has an Asian setting but none of its main characters are Asian, only Wong, a comic relief crowd-pleaser, who admittedly drew some laughs. But The Ancient One is an Asian man in the comics, leaving Swinton’s casting under scrutiny.
It’s also questionable about how Marvel contrasts Asia with contemporary America and whether adapting a fifty-year-old comic book has preserved racial attitudes. The film is obviously about time travel but Strange’s transition from his upmarket lifestyle in America to an Asian country of ancient books, magic, spells and kung fu, and non-Asian actors, still paints Asia as an anachronistic and exotic stereotype. The mostly white cast is rich but the script is imbalanced. Rachel McAdams only bookends the beginning and end and in a silly sequence involving two spirits fighting, there’s more emphasis on her intelligent character squealing for a cheap laugh than having a plausible reaction. Michael Stuhlbarg’s highlight is buying a snack from a vending machine and Chiwetel Ejiofor is only used for exposition and weak moral questions about combat. These issues are not new for a Marvel film, but nor is this a terrible film; thankfully, there are hints of a deeper, smarter film here that tries ending with a coda about death enriching life. That’s better from Marvel. If it trusted its audience more and repaid their diligence, it could aim higher. Even a boring guy like Dr. Strange learns to let go of his ego and that time shouldn’t stop.
Summary: The film is pumped with action and effects, but nothing is tense or stimulating. It's a flashback in time.