At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Doctor Strange “2016”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Fantasy-Action/ Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton/ Runtime: 115 minutes

I feel it is safe to say movie goers that if you asked me if there is one kind of film that is nowhere nearly as easy to make as they were even just 15 years ago my answer would most definitely have to be the origin story for a comic hero. I say this because when comic movies were few and far between, we as an audience got to witness quite a few of the classic golden and silver age stories manage to pop in modern day adaptations yet other than that if you weren’t a highly known superhero your chances of getting a big screen origin story film were pretty much slim to none. However now that audiences nowadays have seen more and more of these stories for more and more characters I feel that not only have we seen expectations continually raised, but we have also started to see certain elements become quite repetitive. As such, there is now, more than ever, a vital need for these kinds of introductory films to show fans, in addition to all the required beats, something that they’ve truly never seen before.

It is this heavy baggage that the MCU film Doctor Strange found itself carrying as it arrived in theaters back in 2016, but thankfully I can say that it is a weight that the film’s able to juggle. This is because although in its structure and storytelling there are certainly shades of the origin films for Iron Man and Thor, the film manages to balance out those familiar elements by giving us not only a, for those who read the comics, tremendously faithful adaptation of the original Dr. Strange comics from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in the early 1960s, but also a fantastic and incredibly fun to watch cast and also some of the most bombastic, exciting, trippy as hell, and just downright beautiful visual action sequences we’ve seen yet in a modern blockbuster.

The plot is as follows: Dr. Stephen Strange is an absolutely brilliant neurosurgeon who also happens to be somewhat kinda sorta definitely an arrogant prick and who we can instantly see really needs to be taken down a few notches. It isn’t long therefore after we meet him that he gets karma’s treatment for the common dick…a treatment which comes in the form of an absolutely horrific to watch car crash that winds up doing quite the destructive number to his hands. Yet while initially devastating, it proves to be his big push on a trip of self-discovery towards hero-dom (and yes that is a word) as Strange’s path soon leads him, in a last-ditch effort, to a place called Kamar-Taj where a powerful mystic who could quite possibly help him heal his hands known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) resides. After seeing the amazing things that she is capable of however, Strange wants in the mystic game and after quite bit of convincing, or rather just loitering on her doorstep to the point that she caves in and lets him in, it isn’t long before The Ancient One and her fellow sorcerers are not only teaching Strange how to become a sorcerer extraordinaire, but also little by little and more importantly, how to be less of an arrogant prick and more of an genuine human being. It isn’t long however, before Strange finds himself reluctantly having to put his training to the test when a former student of the Ancient One who started his own mystic sect known as Kaecilius and his disciples come a’calling with a plan to not only take down The Ancient One, but to also allow an malevolent entity from another dimension to take over the Earth… (Dun dun dun!)

Now while I can honestly praise this film for not exactly being entirely predictable, due to the fact that I was surprised and delighted by some of the twists and moves this film throws your way in the third act, the film all the same does make you wish that there was just a wee bit more creativity taken just in the way that the story is told. The best example of this being the fact that time is a subject rather than just simply a factor or concept in this film that is tremendously important both to the plot and to the larger themes at play in this part of the Marvel sandbox yet everything in the movie unfolds in a straight line. Despite that though, the script for this film that was penned by Scott Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill actually does an impressive job of not only introducing the world of magic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also with presenting us as an audience with an impressive new protagonist as well as the gallery of supporting characters that make up this person’s specific section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Now while Doctor Strange has its shortcomings I feel I must tell you that when you watch this film it can be blissfully said that none of this film’s flaws ever come from the visual side of this cinematic experience. Indeed this is a film which has provided audiences with a truly mind-bending, gorgeous trip through an absolutely immersive and quite expansive multiverse. Yet while Marvel fans did, to be fair get a taste of what to expect from this arena with the kaleidoscopic Quantum Realm at the end of 2015’s Ant-Man, this film manages to find every single opportunity it possibly can to crank that part up to a scale factor of 11. Indeed it’s absolutely breathtaking with particular kudos going to an sequence where shortly after they finally meet one another, The Ancient One rockets a skeptical Doctor Strange through a series of alternate dimensions, and as the perfectly-cast Tilda Swinton narrates through voice over the display of infinite universes, you can’t help but be just as hypnotically stunned and in a seemingly constant and never-ending state of awe as the good doctor clearly is. Indeed while clear inspiration for this particular sequence is drawn not only from the beautiful work of Steve Ditko in the character’s earliest comics, but also Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey it’s all brought to life in a phenomenally stunning fashion with amazing visual effects that just weren’t cinematically widespread available until now.

Now brilliant as it is to watch an absolutely awestruck and at a loss for words Doctor Strange merely float through worlds of both splendor and, in at least one case, horror, it’s all taken to yet another level altogether when the magic is a part of the action sequences. Therefore I can honestly say to you moviegoers that these are truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen. This is because in addition to portal-hopping, which we see in the trailers and which we also saw used to great effect in the finale of Thor: The Dark World, this is a film that utilizes what is dubbed “the Mirror Dimension” to create what is essentially an M.C. Escher meets Inception interpretation of our world where cityscapes can be shifted turned, gravity flipped, and totally susceptible to being screwed with at will, with the additional bonus of all of your actions being imperceptible to the non-magically inclined. Indeed these sequences, along with a finale that utilizes time manipulation in an absolutely fantastic way, truly make Doctor Strange stand out as one of the most visually inventive and incredible films put out by Marvel Studios yet. Plus we also get a treat for our ears as well due to composer Michael Giacchino providing this film with an absolutely memorable harpsichord-heavy score and theme that will have you humming days later.

Now I feel like it is safe to say that reflecting on Doctor Strange really truly can be a push and pull exercise, as while it in many ways does in fact represent the best of what Marvel does and can do it finds itself being hindered by some of the MCU’s most familiar flaws. For example Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all perfect as Doctor Strange, The Ancient One and Karl Mordo (one of Strange’s allies and teachers, and a devout follower of The Ancient One) with particular kudos of course having to go towards, of course Cumberbatch. This is because not since Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, RDJ as Iron Man, or Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool has an actor embodied a hero this perfectly and Cumberbatch just nails the character, flaws and all, but due to the story’s focus on the 3 lead characters the film really truly leaves you wanting a lot more from its incredibly talented supporting cast, including Benedict Wong’s Wong (the strict yet amusing librarian at Kamar-Taj), and Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer (Strange’s former flame and fellow surgeon). Also as incredible as the action sequences are and boy are they ever, we are once again given an antagonist, in this film’s case Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who, while the actor portraying them does an absolutely phenomenal job portraying them and while they do possess an interesting, semi-relatable, yet villainous ideology, is still not given a truly fleshed-out arc or enough screen time to be perceived as a legitimate threat. Indeed this is definitely something that Marvel desperately needs to fix….

All in all though by the time the second post-credits scene plays out and the words “Doctor Strange will return” appear on screen you will be most definitely excited for more of the titular character. Indeed with this film it really could be said, and rightfully so, that they once again had succeeded in a big way. This is because Doctor Strange truly is a legitimately fun and trippy as hell film that not only managed to serve as an effective gateway that I hope Marvel will take full advantage of and give us more fun and mystical features in the near future, but also managed to firmly establish for us as an audience a legitimately exciting hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and honestly I couldn’t be more thrilled. On a scale of 1-5 I give Dr. Strange a 4 out of 5.