Doctor Strange — He Came to Bargain [Review]
Doctor Strange Review | Avoiderdragon

Film Info:

  • Genre: Superhero / Action
  • Director: Scott Derrickson
  • Producer: Kevin Feige
  • Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton
  • Running Time: 115 minutes
  • Release Date: November 4, 2016

Superhero origin stories are formulaic in structure. The protagonists start in a position of either weakness or strength, and they’re taken to the opposite side of things in an accident or as punishment for hubris. They then go through a crisis, questioning their own identity and value system, and they then experience growth. He/she then gains something of power, which lets them transcend their own limitations and helps them save the day. They then become better both as new superheroes and as human beings. It’s no different here in Doctor Strange, but it does do certain things differently.

This Doctor Strange film is quite alright, and that’s pretty much the gist of it. I’m not saying that in a bad way, but you can say it’s standard Marvel fare. It’s one of the better ones of standard Marvel fare, but standard nonetheless. It’s a fun watch with the usual sprinklings of humor in between moments of tension and excitement, and the cool visuals don’t hurt it either.

NOTE: As this is intended as a full review of this title, there may be some spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Story

Dr. Stephen Strange going from an arrogant super-successful neurosurgeon to a wreck before being trained as a mystic warrior who no longer just serves himself is pretty much a cut-and-dry superhero origin story. The structure is pretty much textbook, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In such cases, it’s all about the little details.

The explanation of how magic works—how it’s like hacking the source code of the universe—is pretty cool, which may have blown the minds of casual viewers. That sets the precedent of magic being seen as a perversion of nature by Mordo, who is shown to be unable to fully reconcile what he learned with the fact that the Ancient One drew power from the Dark Dimension to extend her life. Perhaps it’s a basic but fairly effective way to put across the nature of magic in this universe full of superpowered beings.

Everything else in the story is about breaking Stephen’s ego and preconceived notions down to make him the powerful sorcerer he would become, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance does a good job in showing how he tries to reconcile his training in western medicine and his affinity for pop culture with the mystical arts he got exposed to.

Casting

Benedict Cumberbatch is quite a casting choice. He does look like a shoe-in for the role, and a lot of fans are waiting for the clash of the two Sherlocks once he and Robert Downey Jr. share the same screen. However, if there’s one wonky thing about his depiction of Doctor Strange, it’s his on-and-off American accent. As a friend of mine puts it, “It slips and slides all over the multiverse.”

On the other hand, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One is interesting, to say the least. I haven’t read enough Doctor Strange to be an authority on this, but I don’t know if the Ancient One is supposed to be as white as Iron Fist. However, there was that one throwaway line that mentioned this Ancient One was born Celtic, which perhaps makes her Enya with magic kung fu powers. Meanwhile, millions of Asian-American voices cry out in pain.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo is bang on. It’s an interesting take on the character, and a great way to show how he later becomes a villain. His unwillingness to compromise at the end of the movie is much like Rorschach’s in Watchmen, but the former is only getting started while the latter had been worn down by his part in the struggle and let himself be taken out instead of seeing what comes from such a blatant white lie. The post-credits scene cements his surrender to his own cognitive dissonance, turning away from the teachings of his former master like Kaecilius did, but follows a more focused solution to what he sees as a perversion of nature.

Then there’s Wong. Benedict Wong. He was pretty good as Kublai Khan in Marco Polo. I don’t know if this was an easy role for him, but at least he can respond to his own real name in it. Benedict Wong as Wong has a ring to it, and he must have had an amusing time with Benedict Cumberbatch. I think this is the perfect Wong, a hard-looking and formidable man with humor hidden deep inside that stern disposition. He helps teach Doctor Strange about the mystic arts, which is multitudes better than just being a servant like in the comics.

Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius is cool for me since I look forward to his role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but he is perhaps the weakest part of this movie as well. It’s not his fault, but they just needed a cut-and-dry villain to go with the cut-and-dry writing. He just plays a straight-up Judas who turned away from the perceived hypocrisy of his former master and wants to tap into the longevity granted by the Dark Dimension. It reminds me a bit of the antagonist in Arcanum, who believes in death instead of life as the ultimate salvation for all. But while the latter is shown to be more substantial, the former is apparently naive and misinformed.

Rachel McAdams as Doctor Strange’s love interest drew comparisons to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane in the DC Extended Universe. Both are the anchors that keep their respective men grounded to earth when things are getting too stressful. But while that Lois Lane was made to stumble around in the dark like a clueless child, this Christine Palmer actually saves Stephen’s life during a time of great need while they’re supposed to be estranged, and she doesn’t get too much in the way. Then again, the writers barely puts her in any danger, so perhaps that’s just them being very careful with her.

Oh yeah, there’s Scott Adkins too. I’d like to imagine him as Boyka with magic king fu powers in this movie. I thought he did alright being a hound dog astral chasing Doctor Strange down in the hospital.

Direction

It’s the standard Marvel structure with strategic sprinklings of humor to keep things from sliding too far down the serious scale like DC Extended Universe movies do. Aside from the writing and acting, the visuals make for a very entertaining watch, especially with the magic stuff. For once, here’s a superhero movie that can justify the large amount of CGI used in making it.

The magic depicted here is interesting—it looks like the omni-tool from Mass Effect, but stretchier. Then there’s the magic weapons conjured by Kaecilius and his lackeys, which is much like the Bound Weapon spell in Skyrim. The whole M. C. Escher-esque city-bending thing is much like Inception, and maybe even a hint of American McGee’s Alice (don’t ask me why, but that’s what I had in my head as of this writing).

Other than that, there’s not much else to say about it, and perhaps that’s the movie’s biggest problem here. It’s pretty much what could be expected; it didn’t hold enough surprises to really keep viewers guessing. However, they did somewhat remedy this with the best scene in the film—the bargaining scene. The whole thing with the time loop and Dormammu being subjected to the ravages of time is quite something. The Eye of Agamotto ending up being an Infinity Stone was pretty neat too, effectively tying the movie into the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

However, the way Dormammu is depicted here is less than satisfactory. We could’ve had the flaming head and clawed hands, but this one looked more like Thanos’ galactic-sized cousin.

Final Score

Doctor Strange
7 out of 10
Pros
  • Right length with solid storytelling
  • Strange's ego adds to the character
  • World (and mind) bending visuals
  • Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One
  • Cloak of Levitation's physical comedy
  • Interesting take on Mordo
  • The bargaining scene
  • Perfect Wong
Cons
  • Standard Marvel fare
  • Flat antagonist
  • Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One
  • Dormammu's appearance
  • Benedict Cumberbatch's "American" accent
Summary
While it's pretty much the same Marvel song and dance underneath the veneer of CGI magic, Doctor Strange proves the foundation to be rock solid when reinforced with good performances and pacing. Despite the Ancient One's supposed Celtic origins, Benedict Cumberbatch's dodgy Mid-Atlantic accent, Mads Mikkelsen's apparent dryness, and Dormammu's generic cosmic looks, this movie is indeed a great way to introduce the sorcerer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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