When Marvel Studios started producing the movies that would make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I admit that my knowledge with the majority of these characters was ranging from a bit sketchy at best, all the way to completely in the dark at worst. I was a DC Comic reader. Marvel did not grab me… for the most part. There was one title that completely fascinated me, and it was that of the Sorcerer Supreme himself, Doctor Strange. So, it is with no wonder that of all the Marvel movies coming out where new heroes would be introduced to their cinematic universe, it was this movie that I truly found myself totally excited about what Marvel Studios would give us. All of the past superhero movies have been brilliant, and when Marvel Studios Executive Producer, Kevin Feige, shared that Doctor Strange was a title he was personally enamored with, I became doubly excited! The EP loves my one, favorite Marvel comic book just as much as I do! What could go wrong?
For starters, this movie really is about its title character, Stephen Strange. When we meet him he’s an unbelievably arrogant, and brilliant, neurosurgeon. He’s a total egotist and only seeks to further his own fame and fortune. As far as he’s concerned, everything is about him. However a rather ugly car accident does force Strange to dial back his arrogance where he then goes on the journey to become one of the sorcerer’s pledged with protecting the Earth from all sorts of nasties from different places in the multi-verse.
First, addressing the cast, all I can say is that Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely owned the role of Doctor Strange. He not only managed to brilliantly communicate the terrible pride Strange has that pushes people away from him, but also that of the soon to be Sorcerer Supreme and the journey that gets him there. Cumberbatch has proven time and again the incredible range he has as an actor, and if there is anyone with any doubt about him in the role, you can push those fears away. He is Stephen Strange!
One of the more controversial casting decisions was that of Tilda Swinton as Strange’s teacher, the Ancient One. In the comics this character is an extremely aged Asian man, but here we have a younger woman playing the part, as well as altering the character’s origins in order to explain why the change towards Swinton’s physical appearance. Having her in the role of the Ancient One was clearly the biggest gamble that the filmmakers had when making this film, and for me was its biggest win. She brought a subtle humor to the part that was never there in the comic book, but never at the expense of a sense of aged wisdom that is very much needed for this role. This is not a performance worthy of receiving any award nominations, but she certainly had this part nailed, and any scenes with both Cumberbatch and Swinton together on the screen were certainly a joy to watch!
Other castings were notable in who they picked as actors, but possibly underwhelming in what they were given to do. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is certainly someone who commands great respect for both his skill as an actor and for the roles he takes on, but as Baron Mordor there was not much there for him to do. Even the character in the comic books has more going on with him in regards to why he behaves as he does, but here I found him to be very much in Cumberbatch’s shadow. That’s not an indictment against his ability as an actor, rather with the way his role was written, directed, and then edited for the release of this movie. Another well-respected actor is Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, fellow colleague and former “fling” to Strange. Her part is to simply react to everything that Strange is either saying or doing, which felt like something of a waste for her. Lastly there is Mads Mikkelsen as former sorcery student Kaecilius, now a disciple of a dreaded demon (Did you see what I did just there???) who is hell bent on destroying Earth and everyone on it. Villains are a tough nut to crack. They can either become unbelievably compelling and fun to watch (as evidenced by Tom Hiddleston and his portrayal of Loki), or they can be just two-dimensional characters whose own villainy and motivations barely make them interesting. Sadly, for a strong actor such as Mikkelsen, he fell into the second group for me.
One of the best things about this movie is the visual effects. In fact, I would daresay that had it not been for the strength of the performances from Cumberbatch and Swinton, this movie would have been buried under the weight of its own visual effects. That’s not a criticism. This is a movie about sorcery and how magic can alter reality, and what we see clearly does that. At times the movie feels like an “Escher-esque” nightmare, and at others it must seem like what people experience while tripping on LSD. This movie has scenes of pure psychedelia, and watching it on the IMAX screen in 3-D made them enormously enjoyable! One of the most celebrated eras of the Doctor Strange comic book was from the time of Steve Ditko, and his outrageously weird and colorful landscapes were more than just replicated for the big screen. They were absolutely glorious! That then takes me to my biggest complaint, and that is the way the magic was used and portrayed in this film. As a long time reader of the comic book I remember quite well many of the spells and principalities Strange would conjure as he battled evil across the multi-verse, and there was very little, if any, evidence of that. While the movie did show Strange summon some beautiful mandalas, both as weapons and defensive measures, I would have enjoyed seeing him call forth the Shield of Seraphim, or for the emerald Flames of Faltine. Then again, Strange is only destined to one day become the Sorcerer Supreme, so perhaps we’ll see such magic used in future Marvel films.
One last complaint is the use of the humor. While much of it was quite enjoyable and got some good laughs out of the audience, there were other moments where a joke was delivered at the expense of a very emotionally truthful scene, and such jokes only served to cheapen those very scenes. Maybe on a repeat viewing those jokes might resonate better, but for an initial viewing I found that many of them “took me out” of the movie watching experience.
I cannot end this review on a negative note, so I’ll make mention of the incredible music in this movie. Not only was Michael Giacchino’s background music amazing, I also had a seriously geeky moment when Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive was played. It wasn’t “source music” (music played in a scene that makes up part of the story, e.g. “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione while Strange is performing some brain surgery). It was part of the musical landscape to help set up each scene, as well as the overall tone, in the movie. It had an anger to it, but trippy at the same time. And I have to mention one more time the ending credit music that is pure psychedelic prog. Giacchino has proven that he’s a chameleon when it comes to composing music for a film. It doesn’t matter what the genre, or film style it is, Giacchino can come up with the most perfect score for each and every single movie he is working on.
All in all I did enjoy the movie. I daresay that people who are at best only casual fans of the comic books might enjoy this movie even more than die-hard fans, and this is not a fault of either the movie or the casual fans. They are the target demographic as they do make up the majority of the people who put down their money to sit in a theater for roughly 2 hours and to be entertained. However those comic book fans of the early Ditko era might get greater satisfaction out of this movie than I did. I fell in love with the mid-70’s run by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner, and it seemed to me that this movie was more in line with those fans of the title’s earliest, Ditko years.
It was not all that I had hoped for in a movie of this type (in fact I found Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice film from 2010 to be more in line with what I’ve come to expect in a movie about magic), but what was given was not bad by any means. I would also go so far as to say that of out of all of the Marvel movies where super heroes are properly introduced (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, etc.), Doctor Strange was the weakest of the lot. That’s not say that this is a bad movie. As I have said before, I did enjoy it! I was just hoping that in the area of magic that I would get something a little bit more… well strange!
3 out of 5 Stars
[Thanks go out to Fingerpaint for the press-screening event for this movie.]
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