“I want to have so much behind me, I’m not a slave to what’s in front of me… especially these… flavorless, unremarkable Marvel Movies.”
“Oh, they are SO not a big deal!”
“It’s just all there is!”
— Annie Edison and Jeff Winger, “Community: Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television”
To a certain extent, they’re right, even though it’s just a playful dig at the Russo Brothers, who directed more than a few “Community” episodes and the last two Captain America films, The Winter Soldier and Civil War. A lot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films are almost the exact same, just retold with various superheroes boasting different superpowers, especially the origin stories. Most of them walk similar paths, almost as if they were modeled on Jon Favreau’s stellar Iron Man. Let’s see if the latest chapter in Phase Three of the MCU, Doctor Strange, fits the pattern.
Do we have a vain, sorta narcissistic lead character? Yup. Does this character play cutesy with their romantic opposite, who isn’t quite tied to them yet or was tied to them previously? Check. Does a catastrophic event lead to a massive change in their lives, thus prompting the rise of their superhero alter ego or their need to act to save the world or the universe? You betcha. Does the main threat of the film come from a former ally of the hero or someone mentoring the hero? Indeed. Is there some kind of fight which leads the hero to believe he or she is not quite ready, thus giving them a pensive moment of self-doubt? Affirmative. And finally, does the mentor step aside for the hero at the appropriate moment, just in time for the big final fight, where the hero takes what he or she has learned and puts it to good use in a way you weren’t quite expecting? That’s a big 10-4, chief.
To be honest, even though I’ve enjoyed most of what Marvel’s put forth, I’m getting tired of it. We’re 14 films into the MCU canon, and Doctor Strange marks the second MCU film of 2016, coming in after Captain America: Civil War, which turned out to be one of my favorite films of the year. I liked that film because it examined the real-world consequences The Avengers have to face for destroying cities in order to save humanity. Also, what’s not to like about a massive, all-superhero battle royale? However, it really should have been called The Avengers Part 3, as I noted in my review of Civil War, considering that the narrative wasn’t solely focused on Captain America. It’s his name on the title, after all.
So, now we have Doctor Strange, which feels like an amalgam of Iron Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man. Part of me feels like this film goes hurriedly through the motions to quickly set up yet another character in the MCU, so what sets this chapter of the MCU’s Phase Three apart from the rest? It’s what sets every one of these films apart from each other: abilities and personalities. This is what leads me to one of the two absolutely great things about Doctor Strange: its lead character never changes.
Played spellbindingly by fan favorite Benedict Cumberbatch, the titular Dr. Stephen Strange is an odd sort of duck. He’s a beyond-brilliant surgeon with the steadiest hands in the business, capable of doing pretty much anything he sets his mind to in an operating theater. His people skills? Ehhh, not so much brilliance on that front. We see him belittle a fellow emergency room doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who’s mistakenly called time of death on a body that isn’t quite dead yet. He treats his ER co-doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel Adams) – who also happens to be his former love interest – with a detachment undeserving of someone so close.
Worse yet, he looks at pictures on his phone while he’s driving like a lunatic on a very dangerous road, leading to a horrible accident which leaves his hands… well, the best description of his injuries would be the old military term “FUBAR,” with the R standing for “repair” or “recognition” – your choice. Throughout it all, Cumberbatch commands this movie as its centerpiece, creating an actual person with depth and gravitas, rather than some comic book character who’s merely a physical representation of inked-and-colored panel drawings. His magnetic presence, so readily felt and established in the international television phenomenon “Sherlock,” does not go to waste, even with his solid American accent.
What makes Doctor Strange so memorable is that he’s selfish and he’s not secret about it. Every move he makes is for himself without regard for the moral or ethical consequences, much less the personal ones. He drives Christine away in a reckless show of vanity, and he’s shown to be a fan of the path of least resistance, attempting to heal himself in any manner which will get him back to normal the quickest way possible. These self-centered character traits stay with him the entire film, and they even make the climax as funny and as wild as it winds up being.
Except for a slight change in heart toward the long-suffering Christine, he doesn’t have the “big awakening” and call to action as others in the MCU. When he does get tasked with either stepping up or stepping aside, he accepts it more as a passing of a torch instead of truly taking on the mission. It is a joy to see someone as flawed as Strange retaining those flaws and using them as a part of his legend.
The healing and training part is standard Marvel – a seemingly benevolent mentor, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), takes him under her wing, even though she recognizes the trouble Strange’s selfishness will cause. Even her second-in-command, Karl Mordo (the ever-great Chiwetel Ejiofor), knows he’s going to be a big pain in the ass, but Strange is begrudgingly accepted into the mystical monastery of Kamar-Taj, powering through any book in the vast library having to do with his healing. The standard training montages and attempts at humor (which will have you laughing, don’t get me wrong) are put through their paces, with Strange learning and improving his skills at a manic rate, learning to draw power from alternate dimensions and create weapons and shields from seemingly nowhere.
So where does the conflict come into the story? Right away, as we see one of The Ancient One’s former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) charge into the library to steal pages from a book of incantations to summon Dormammu, the Lord of the Dark Dimension. Why? Once again, we have a villain whose worldview has been bent so far that he’s willing to destroy humanity in order to save it. What is with the glut of these kinds of characters lately? Just last week, I was talking about a guy with this this kind of problem and solution. Regardless, Kaecilius isn’t written as the ostentatious baddie; he’s there rather solemnly with a touch of sadness, seeing as how he has to do terrible things in order to make this world a better place.
As must happen in these films, gargantuan-scale fights ensue, which brings me to the second aspect of Doctor Strange I loved: the mind-warping, reality-distorting abilities these characters use to hinder their opponents in these sequences. I must say that watching this in IMAX 3D is such a boon to these parts of the film, as the post-conversion to 3D is astonishing. The depth of field these scenes contain lends itself easily to 3D, as impossible configurations of existing buildings and structures create eye-popping havoc and a grand disorientation for the viewer.
Director Scott Derrickson keeps the film tightly-paced and moving at the speed of light, creating a whirlwind of form and deconstruction which is better seen than described. The film slips into the Marvel canon well, acknowledging its place in the MCU with both visual and dialogue references to items and concepts found in previous films. It’s also helped by an awkwardly-pushed mid-credits scene which may not be as funny as it thinks it is, but it serves its purpose all the same. The film hits all the expected Marvel cues with a reserved amount of gusto, but it’s the well-done action which takes center stage here. If there was ever a definitive vehicle for the term “escapist entertainment,” Doctor Strange would be a fantastic front-runner for the title.