Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016) *Magic Comes to the MCU!!!*

Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Strange, Doctor Strange

Fourteen films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduces The Sorcerer Supreme of Earth: Doctor Stephen Strange.  It’s getting harder and harder to find new ways to praise Marvel’s interwoven film tapestry of wonder or Disney’s success in 2016, but I have a large vocabulary. Fortunate, that, because this is another home run.  My policy is spoiler-free Marvel reviews, so I’m not going to give away plot details, and if you don’t want to know anything more than if the film is up to snuff: rest easy.  Doctor Strange introduces an entire new dimension to an ever-expanding, ever-diversifying film universe of unforgettable characters.  It’s powerful cast, deft direction, clever script, and MIND ALTERING visuals make this one of the strongest comic book origin movies of all-time.

Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen StrangeDoctor Strange clearly is following the formula that made Guardians of the Galaxy the highest-grossing film of 2014 and elevated a bunch of unknown characters to superstar status.  Just as Guardians showed audiences that there is a science fiction/cosmic element to the MCU every bit as deep and vast as Star Trek, Dr. Strange‘s task was to open the door to Marvel’s supernatural realm.  Guardians was the biggest risk to-that point in the MCU and a pivotal success.  It showed that audiences were now so invested in the grand universe and brand of Marvel and so trusting of their quality, that they’d go see a movie with a talking tree and a weapons-crazed raccoon.  But to make sure they did, Marvel broke from casting mostly unknowns and filled the movie with established stars.  Doctor Strange boasts four Oscar-nominated/winning actors, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch who has become a sort of living stamp of approval for geek franchises.  Throw in Chewitel Eijifor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, and Mads Mikkelsen, and you have actors with the gravitas and talent to make this first trip into Marvel’s multiverse something that audiences will take as seriously as any Marvel film takes itself (which is just enough to make it emotionally resonate, but never so much that it’s tongue isn’t firmly planted in its cheek).

Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Strange

Strange is going to be an incredibly important character to the MCU going forward, and Cumberbatch had to make him unique and distinct from all the icons that have already established themselves in this world.  Most importantly, Stephen Strange and Tony Stark could not be more different, but they are physically very similar and begin their separate stories in a very similar place of being extremely arrogant, wealthy, powerful ….jackasses.  Cumberbatch in very short order makes the brilliant neurosurgeon an even bigger, even more arrogant jackass than Stark.  Stark was likable and sympathetic even as a merchant of death.  Strange is compelling and charismatic, but the car crash that destroys his hands and sends him on a journey to find answers outside the laws of nature doesn’t endear him to the audience.  He IS a good man, and the film cleverly builds him up, but the good doctor’s journey is only just beginning.

Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Strange

Every good fantasy that incorporates magic needs that magic to have a tethered connection.  A rulebook, for something that doesn’t have rules, if that makes sense.  If you’re a reader of epic fantasy, you know the establishment of how magic works in the world is critical to that fantasy’s success.  Oddly, the exception to this rule is The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien really made no effort to explain the magic (which-to be fair-is a limited part of that epic) in his stories.  But he essentially created the modern fantasy and those who have followed  and who have created worlds in which magic takes part, have taken many different paths to lay out its part in those worlds.  The magic in the Marvel Universe is not Harry Potter magic, it’s not inexplicable conjuring either.  Really, it’s an extension of Thor’s explanation of the mystic in his first movie, “Your ancestors call it magic, you call it science, I come from a place where they are one in the same.”

Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Strange, Baron Mordo, Chewitel Eijefor

Which brings us to the visuals.  The magic battles in Doctor Strange are like nothing you’ve ever seen in any film ever.  No film demands IMAX 3D more than this because dimension itself is a weapon used by Marvel sorcerers.  The visuals are nothing short of jaw-dropping.  And, as an aside, Michael Giacchino, finally delivers a fantastic Marvel score.  The music in most of the films (aside from the first Thor) have been average action scores, and he gives the Doctor a great theme (honestly, try humming another character’s; it’s my #1 complaint with the MCU overall).  Digression over, back to the trippy eye candy.  The trailers made it look a little too much like Inception in bits, but it’s nothing like that.  You have no idea what you are looking at until you’re in the middle of these battles through space, reality, and time.  Time.  Doctor Strange might just have to become the official movie of Killing Time because there is no concept more important to the film than time.  It fuels Stephen’s transformation and frustrates it, time provides the impetus for the schism in the MCU’s sorcerers, it provides the bedrock for the movie’s most touching scene, and it is its most potent connection to the overall tale being built film-by-film to The Infinity War.

Mads Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange

The film is very funny in parts, cleverly weaves in the classic touchstones of Strange’s world (The Eye of Agamotto, The Ancient One, The Sanctum Santorum, The Wand of Watoomb, and-my favorite-The Cloak of Levitation and many more).  However, a warning to parents, this is the hardest that a regular MCU film has pushed the PG-13 boundary.  Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has a solid background in horror and there are terrifying, disturbing, and bloody violence.  It is in no way gratuitous.  Everyone knows magic has a cost. There are no shortcuts in the universe, and sometimes that cost is exacted in blood.  Civil War was a very dark film in parts, but had the Avengers lightness to it throughout most of its story.  Doctor Strange is the darkest film in the MCU yet,but it’s appropriate to the character and to the door to the MCU this film opens.

doctor_strange_hd_screencaps-16

Doctor Strange could have gotten bogged down in doing too much in his first outing (of many I have no doubt-stick around for the two end credits scenes and you’ll have apretty good idea of when you’ll next see him).  Scott Derrickson wisely doesn’t even try to do more than introduce Strange and his supporting cast, open the door to the world of magic and give the MCU an even bigger sandbox in which to play, and give you an idea of the Doctor’s importance to the eventual war with Thanos and in the MCU beyond.  This is a character every bit as interesting as Tony Stark and to have him introduced in film #14 shows you the depth to this world and the potential for its future.
9.50/10

DOCTOR STRANGE WILL RETURN!!!!

Mads Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange

12 thoughts on “Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016) *Magic Comes to the MCU!!!*”

  1. I have read close to nothing about this movie, except for your review just now. I want to go in as cold as possible when I go in tomorrow.

    I was thinking about how Madea beat out Inferno last weekend (don’t feel bad about your wrong prediction, no one remotley saw it coming) and I think it has less to do with the Dan Brown phenomenon and more to do with audiences getting tired of repetitive filmmaking.

    The big names, the Hollywood attention-getters, are not what they used to be. The words “Marvel,” “Pixar,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Planet of the Apes,” ect. are carrying so much more weight than the stars on the marquee. And if the concept is “Robert Langdon” or “Jack Reacher,” it no longer matters one iota who the stars are. Things are shifting.

    It’s hard to believe, but Benedict Cumberbatch is not yet a household name, though I think he might be in a few days. Right now I think the non diehard nerds are simply going because it’s the MCU. They’re going because the concept has been packaged so well. There are such depressing things going on in every corner of the world right now, and people are confident they’ll find some measure of escape this weekend, even if they’re not quite clear on who this Strange fellow is.

    Escape. The MCU seems to be set in our world, but it’s so much more colorful, the people defending it are so much more dependable, and the threats against it are so well-defined. Ultron, to pick a villain at random, is so much easier to wrap your mind around than say, Vladimir Putin. If you’re armed with virtue, these comic book villains stand no chance at all. I’m pretty sure that’s the problem with the DCEU, BTW. I don’t want to live in that universe. God, no. It’s terrifying there, and everyone is ambiguous at best. And none of the major cities really exist.

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  2. I realize there are no spoilers in your review but I’m skipping it for now. I know nothing about Dr. Strange just as I knew nothing about Star Lord or any other of the Guardians and I want to go in with childs eyes. Looking at your almost perfect rating and the 90%+ on Rotten Tomatoes has made me very excited. While I’m sure one day they will have a misstep, it seems as though Marvel just can’t miss which is great for them and for us!

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  3. Sorry, that was even more rambling than usual. I’m thrilled you loved the movie! Considering how many years I’ve spent wanting to see a Doctor Strange film, it’s been especially punishing that Disney waited until the MCU was fourteen films in.

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  4. OK!

    I was impressed by how direct and focused this movie was. No one will ever mistake it for an intimate character piece, but there wasn’t a gratuitous moment. Also never a confusing moment, or even a muddled one. The action sequences and special effects were mesmerizing and epic, yet they stopped well short of qualifying as overload.

    Take note, Zack Snyder and Company. You don’t need to have a kitchen sink philosophy/mentality to draw in an audience. In fact, by the time the kitchen sink has been thrown in (because why not) your style has usually become a liability. It makes an audience bored. It causes us to cease to care about the characters. All it accomplishes is numbness.

    It’s high time for quality to start superseding quantity when it comes to SFX in movies, and the psychedelic visuals in Doctor Strange prove it. This film proves that Hollywood has not shown us everything, not by a mile. They simply need to place artistry over technology, like they used to do before they became drunk on their own CGI. That mind-bending action sequence in NYC… I had never seen anything like it before in my wildest dreams. And it wasn’t the realism of the CGI that got me (although it was pretty convincing), it was the visual imagination.

    Yet the SFX did not overshadow the characters. I thought Swinton stole the movie, that she was more likable and charismatic than Cumberbatch. That’s not to take away from his performance, so please don’t think less of me. If they’re trying to position Strange as the future lynchpin of the MCU, I think that mission has already been accomplished. At the beginning of this movie Strange was an entirely different kind of jerk than Tony Stark. Tony Stark is a funny jerk. Cumberbatch plays Strange like a realistic one, especially when he loses his hands.

    I have one big general complaint, about the entire MCU. At this point in its history, it’s time to start losing some of the jokes. When the Doctor flipped up that iconic collar for the very first time, it was a perfect moment that did not need to be defused with a gag. You know I’m all for the fun atmosphere of this universe, that the lighthearted tone is essential to its appeal. The spirit of this world is not dark. That said, a bit more gravitas would be nice. I’m not saying to go full on DC, but maybe borrow a passage from a page from DC’s book.

    I’ve talked to people about this movie, and I’ve discovered that even fewer people are familiar with the character of the Doctor than I thought. It doesn’t matter, everyone still wants to see the film. How is it that Disney got THIS right, but a film with a mission statement as clear as “Batman fighting Superman” was an excruciating ordeal?

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    1. Well, because they hired people who understood what makes the character work. And, no, no one knows Strange because he hasn’t even been written well in the comics most of the last forty years. He IS a very difficult character to get right, but they did it here with focus and building even more layers of character in their universe. I think Strange needed the jokes because like you said, Stephen is a dick. He’s not a lovable rogue. He’s a flat out dick. It would have been very easy because of the similarity in their circumstances and appearance to have audiences think this is the next Stark. Well, they brutally smashed any comparison between them and Strange’s humor is clearly less that he finds himself hilarious (as Tony does) and more of a defense mechanism/annoyed reaction to the world. From the trailers, going in, you’d be surprised at the restraint in the FX used, but when they started whomping NYC in itself while the Ancient One fought in the opening scene, you were just awestruck. Disney is clearly going to win the Oscar for FX, the competiton is what the heck film deserves it most? I thought Swinton was fantastic, that Eijifor set up Mordo logically and brilliantly, Wong….oh my gosh I want a Wong spin-off. I thought Rachel McAdams did a very good job being the normal person in the film; the audience’s perspective. Also kudos on the operation while an astral kung fu fight is happening around you. We all knew Strange would have an Infinity Stone and to make the Time gem and Time the theme of the entire film was so well done and so poignant. The Ancient One’s last scene on the balcony moved me as much as any scene in the MCU ever has. That’s the most amazing thing about these films to me. That they get all the comic things right that hooked us on the books, but can put together a scene like the balcony scene that’s as touching and profound as any in any film you’ll see is why Marvel keeps succeeding and keeps making people fall in love with these characters. I’m completely stoked for Thor 3 which they did a fantastic job of setting up (necessary after Disney messed with Thor’s storyline in Age of Ultron in a rare case of meddling) and Strange 2, which is going to be epic. The best friends end up being the worst enemies. I could see Derrickson’s talent in Sinister and it’s not my genre at all, but he brought just enough strangeness and horror to make the MCU magic not the cuddly Harry Potter or Narnia variety. We’ve had so many origin stories at this point, that getting one to feel fresh is a feat. I am stoked to see what they’re going to do now that they can just hit the ground running in an established world. Also, just his little interaction with Thor was enough to make you want to see him in the Avengers because he looks at things SO differently than anyone else. The best of the MCU films are when things building come to a head like Avengers or Civil War, but those are all made possible by films like this, Iron Man, Thor, First Avenger, etc. I can’t wait to see issue 15 and catch up with the Guardians gang.

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      1. In the crowded theater where I saw this film, every audience member waited in his seat until that final, post-credits scene was over. The fact that the inclusion of those scenes has become such a widely-known convention is a measure of just how popular these movies have become.

        I’m thrilled that this film did as well as it did this past weekend. I stand by what I said about this franchise being the ultimate expression of this material. You’re already starting with characters whose appeal is obvious and tested by time, but when the canvas shifts from a comic book page to an IMAX screen, the action explodes and the material takes on a whole other dimension, and the mythic quality becomes impossible for anyone to deny, and people eat it up.

        There are not enough movies out there that are strictly for adults. I want more films that depend solely on the director/actor/screenwriter trifecta. I am getting more than a little tired of these endless fantasy/sci-fi/action/whatever movies, and all the endless sequels to the same, and I think a lot of other people share my feelings. But I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Disney’s brand of escapism.

        Long live Pixar/Lucasfilm/MCU.

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  5. BTW, Benedict Cumberbatch just proved that it’s time to put Saturday Night Live out to pasture. He was fantastic, but there was only so much he could do with the material. SNL should serve as a cautionary tale about the virtues of capitalism. When a show has no competition in its time slot, Saturday Night Live happens.

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    1. This is cyclical. It happens with SNL. They have average to bad casts after boom eras. If it wasn’t for Eddie Murphy, the show wouldn’t have had a second cast, and aside from him those years were awwwwful. People have written off SNL time after time after time and it comes back. It’s not the hosts; it’s the cast. The current cast is BAD. It’s a TV institution and it will come around again. It’s not like The Simpsons which hasn’t been funny for 15 years and is still getting renewed.

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      1. It’s hard to believe how hip and edgy SNL was when it first came out. Now it’s the epitome of safe. The show needs a serious overhaul if it’s going to avoid becoming the Simpsons, because this particular cycle is taking its precious time, and the show has been running on fumes since the early 2000’s, around the time Ferrell and Kattan left. I used to love TV Funhouse, thought it was the best recurring feature since Mr. Bill.

        Also the blame does not just lie with the current cast. The writers are totally complicit. I only tune in when I like the host, and that used to be enough to get me to enjoy an episode, but no more.

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      2. Totally disagree. The Fey/Poehler years were astoundingly good and remember in 2008 and 2012, the elections ran right through SNL and that’s not that long ago. Fey’s skewering of Palin defanged her singlehandedly. They’ve been relevant, just not since that cast left to do 30 Rock, Parks & Reck, Seth Meyers to Late Night and so on.

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      3. Of course Fey nailed Palin, and I always loved Seth Meyers (Weekend Update has always been a bright spot). But to my mind, there were three golden ages in the history of SNL: the original cast, the Meyers/Carvey/Farley/Hartman years, and the Ferrell/Kattan ones. Mango!!!

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