Doctor Strange is everything you love about Marvel movies, but on LSD. Therefore, your reception of this film will likely depend upon your affinity for both comic books and hallucinogens. I liked it a great deal — and would’ve loved it unconditionally in my misspent youth, if that tells you anything. At its core, Doctor Strange is peak Marvel Studios, with everything laudatory and detrimental that such a designation has come to entail. State-of-the-art special effects contribute significant distinction to an engaging (but not particularly thought-provoking) storyline, and a serious bent for franchise-building dominates the proceedings. Where this film really succeeds, however, is not solely in its eye-popping visuals or its competent — if somewhat derivative — storytelling, but in its firm grasp of the property’s original appeal.
Based relatively faithfully on the character created by the legendary Steve Ditko in mid-1963 for Marvel’s “Strange Tales” comic, this film follows the origin story Stan Lee established later that year in which a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon seeks exotic magical aid to restore the surgical prowess destroyed by his own hubris. The comics’ overtones of syncretic mysticism and psychedelic evocations of alternate dimensions would presage late-‘60s youth culture’s fascination with Eastern spirituality and mind-altering substances — a legacy this film fully embraces. It was Ditko’s masterful surrealist landscapes that led Tom Wolfe to reference the comic in relation to Ken Kesey’s acid-fueled anarchy. And, when Lee makes his inevitable cameo, it’s no coincidence that he’s chuckling over Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception.”
As one might expect from such a pedigree, the visuals in Doctor Strange are nothing short of mind-blowing. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) applies a kitchen-sink sensibility to his visual effects, cribbing freely from Inception, The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey with the help of literally hundreds of credited digital effects artists. The result is an absolutely staggering technical achievement that outstrips anything Marvel Studios has committed to the screen thus far. It’s a film that definitely benefits from the 3-D treatment as well as any other experiential enhancements moviegoers may see fit to ingest (though I tend to stick to overpriced theater beer these days and had a good time nonetheless).
If the visual world created for Doctor Strange achieves the apogee of contemporary computer animation without accomplishing anything truly revolutionary, much the same can be said of the script. It’s what you’ve come to expect — and most likely appreciate — from a Marvel movie, only slightly more polished in its execution. The thing functions like one of its protagonist’s finely crafted watches, engineered to appeal to the broadest possible swath of potential viewers while moving its character arcs forward with mechanistic precision. Moments of glib humor in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man punctuate a predictable narrative, precluding the grim stodginess that has long afflicted other studios’ attempts to ascend Mount Marvel.
The protagonist’s initially insufferable narcissism and inevitable redemption through a faux-Campbellian hero’s journey draw inescapable parallels with the character arc of Iron Man, but that similarity can be traced directly to the source material. I’m sure there’s an interesting psychological study to be written on Stan the Man’s superiority complex in his early days with his narrative universe so heavily populated with hyper-competent über-elites who, by virtue of their very arrogance, fail upward into greater power. It could be further argued that things haven’t changed all that much for Mr. Lee, an assertion supported by his having shot the remainder of his cinematic cameos in advance, but I’ve digressed far enough as is.
The cast is another great strength in supporting the film, with Mads Mikkelsen and Chiwetel Ejiofor doing the best they can with limited material, while Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton impart a spark of true vibrancy to their turns as Strange and The Ancient One. (Despite the white-washing uproar over Swinton’s casting, having seen the film, it’s difficult to picture another actor in the role.) Poor Rachel McAdams might as well not even be in this film she’s so thoroughly underutilized.
Doctor Strange maintains the enchantment cast by Marvel Studios over the minds of the moviegoing populace, and is certainly among the best films of the lot. It doesn’t reinvent the comic book movie wheel by any means, but it does put that wheel on a Lamborghini (somewhat literally). I will say, however, that the subtle “don’t text and drive” PSA inserted by the filmmakers between the ending credit stinger scenes loses some of its impact when that’s precisely the poor decision that led to your main character becoming a reality-warping magus. But, then, I’m no doctor. Rated PG-13 for violence and action.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.