Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Scott Derrickson
Written by:
Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & Robert Cargill, based on the Marvel Comic characters created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
Length:   115 minutes
Released:   110416
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
“...a bona fide movie at a time when Marvel is only doing installments..."

The paradox of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters is that in our time virtually anything conceivable, no matter how wild and out there, can be put on the screen, but it almost never is. Theater attendance continues to decline, partly because 50-inch flatscreen TVs and digital streaming have made the theatrical experience less and less indispensable, but also because the actual visuals Hollywood puts on the big screen these days seldom demand to be seen there, or at all. CGI battle scenes, urban destruction, giant spaceships, ugly CGI aliens and other familiar creatures, urban car chases, grungy medieval-type worlds and super powered slugfests — we’ve seen all this before. How many action blockbusters show us something really different?

Some. Mad Max: Fury Road. Inception. But they’re few and far between.

Scott Derrickson’s ( 2005's The Excorcism of Emily Rose) Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (2013's Star Trek Into Darkness) as Marvel’s sorcerer supreme, is a rare action blockbuster — and an even rarer superhero movie — that really ought to be experienced, not only on the big screen, but in 3-D — and if possible in IMAX. I’m not generally a fan of live-action 3-D (animation is another story), but this is an exception. For once, the spectacle in a superhero movie is actually spectacular — and not like anything we’ve ever seen.

Yes, you may be reminded of Inception and The Matrix, among others — and not just because of the urban landscape-bending effects of the one or the gravity-defying stunts in both. (Films I was fleetingly reminded of include Gravity and Interstellar) But Inception used its most dazzling effects purely for a training-sequence wow factor. In Doctor Strange, up and down are relative, fluid concepts in ways that are entirely practical and tactical when sorcerous adepts square off against one another. And it’s not just up and down — everything is fluid. Architecture doesn’t just fold and bend, it flows and reconfigures itself in kaleidoscopic, iterative patterns. In a trippy mind-expanding early sequence, parts of the protagonist’s body, most memorably his fingers, are warped in fractal-like ways.

There’s an action scene that’s like that dream where something is chasing you, but no matter how hard you run you can’t get anywhere. There’s a computer-animated character (you have to call it a character) that’s a kind of descendant of Disney’s very first computer-animated character, Aladdin’s Magic Carpet. In the very end, there’s a loopy sequence in which time is flowing in two directions at once.

If it were only fun and weird to look at, Doctor Strange would still be worth catching in theaters. In fact, it’s one of the most satisfying Marvel movies and the best Marvel origin story since the original Iron Man. Perhaps we might say simply that Derrickson has made a bona fide movie at a time when Marvel is only doing installments.

The origin story beats are familiar, of course. Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant, self-important neurosurgeon whose career is derailed when his body is shattered in a car accident on the Jersey side of the Hudson Valley, within sight of the George Washington Bridge. After exhausting his medical options and his bank account, Strange winds up in Nepal, in Kathmandu, where he uncomfortably eyes hucksterish signs like “Holy Tours: Himalayan Healing.” But he has reason to believe that medical miracles happen here, and, eventually, he comes face-to-face with Tilda Swinton (2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel) in the Morpheus role of bald-headed mentor into the world of mind-bending realities and transcendental superpowers.

Cumberbatch is so ideally cast that he could phone it in and he’d be fine, but Swinton, who is playing an iconoclastic reinterpretation of an archetypal figure literally called the “Ancient One,” comes up with an utterly fresh, offbeat take on the mentor role. She wears her authority lightly, playing the part with a literal wink that doesn’t in the least dissipate the otherworldly aura that Swinton seems to possess anyway.

The rest of the movie is as well cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor (2015's The Martian) brings his customary conviction to a dedicated disciple of the Ancient One named Karl Mordo. Benedict Wong ( 2012's Prometheus) plays a character also named Wong, here reimagined not as Dr. Strange’s valet and sidekick, but as his peer and tutor.

Although the mystical language is occasionally that of esoterica or occultism — notably in connection with astral projection — there appears to be a more fundamental sensibility in Swinton’s critique of Strange’s rationalistic, materialistic worldview. “You’re looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells him. “You think you know how the world works; you think this material universe is all there is.”

Strange isn’t buying it. “There is no such thing as spirit!” he snaps. “We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” Later these words come back to him in an uncomfortable way from an unexpected source.

Where the film stumbles is with its villain du jour, a renegade sorcerer named Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen (2006's Casino Royale). Indeed, this has been the Marvel movie problem for a long time now. Once you get past Loki, the antagonist well dries up. Here, Mikkelsen fans may be disappointed that Kaecilius isn’t a better-developed character, but possibly saving the better villain for another movie is the right call (no spoilers from me).

On the other hand, the film does briefly throw in possibly the ultimate Dr. Strange antagonist, the malevolent entity Dormammu, who inhabits a realm called the Dark Dimension. (Dormammu is described here as having “infinite power,” though by the end it’s obvious this isn’t literally true.) This is perhaps a mistake, although the way Dr. Strange deals with Dormammu is certainly creative.

Certainly I appreciate the fact that Doctor Strange doesn’t come down to slugfests and explosions and doesn’t end with the usual superhero-movie urban destruction — or, rather, that it finds a solution to that pitfall that is unique, to say the least.

I’m intrigued by Doctor Strange’s moral gray areas; my main concern here is that future installments may not get it right. If Dr. Strange, as an established hero, goes on to “break the rules for the greater good” in the way most crucially contested here, this will have to be clearly seen, like Tony Stark creating Ultron, as a bad mistake.

That’s certainly possible, because, like most Marvel origin stories, Doctor Strange is structured as a redemption story, with an egocentric protagonist who needs to save himself before he can save anyone else. Stephen Strange isn’t as entertainingly voluble in his venality as Tony Stark, but then part of the charm of his character is that he’s an even bigger deal in his own mind than he is in other people’s.

An early medical sequence establishes many things at once: Strange’s brilliance and arrogance, his cruelty and aloofness (watch the brief dialogue-free shot in which he meets a grateful family member’s embrace with a side hug), his precise, steady hands. Rachel McAdams (2015's Spotlight) does what she can in these scenes with the underwritten part of Strange’s medical peer and sometimes love interest, Christine Palmer. (Will Marvel never again manage a love interest to match Pepper Potts?)

As our hero progresses in his mastery of the mystic arts, it’s unclear for some time how much moral progress he’s making, if any. Long after he has learned advanced sorcerous techniques, one lesson continues to elude him: “It’s not about you.”

I almost wish Doctor Strange existed in its own universe and didn’t have to be absorbed into the MCU juggernaut. I think I sighed aloud at the end when a character finally uttered an inevitable phrase tying the film into the upcoming Infinity War arc.

It’s true that the weirdness that comes with Dr. Strange territory could liven up the next multi-character Marvel extravaganza — Thor: Ragnarok, to be specific — but by the same token, the sameness of standard Marvel product will surely dilute what is so much fun about this stand-alone movie. I’d rather have another Doctor Strange movie as self-contained as this one, with a beginning, middle and end.

DOCTOR STRANGE ©  2016 Walt Disney Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2016 Alternate Reality, Inc.



“This is the best “Captain America” film and the best “Avengers” film to date." (JR)

"...carries the vague aroma of box-checking functionality..." (JR)

"...more compelling than what we’ve seen in theaters...."  (JR)