Vol. 10, No. 4 – November 23 – December 6, 2016 – Movie Review

Doctor Strange/4 Palm Trees
by Eduardo Victoria/[email protected]

When we first meet Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he’s an esteemed neurosurgeon at the top of his game. His unparalleled skill comes with a cost, however – he’s arrogant, a bit brash and very shrewd of the patients he deems worthy of his time. When a freak accident causes Strange to drive his car off a cliff, rendering his hands useless. After tons of closed doors and colleagues who’ve deemed his case impossible, he uses his last funds on a plane ticket to Kamar-Taj, Nepal. There, he finds a sect of sorcerers lead by a woman simply known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) – their mastery over the mystic arts and the spirit could hold the key to Strange’s recovery. As he studies under the Ancient One, however, an old pupil of hers named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) reappears. He hopes to conjure up a forbidden power in exchange for eternal life, and at the cost of reality as we know it. This forces Strange to realize that the power he’s been given holds great responsibility. As his powers grow, he eventually has to choose between going back to a way of life he once knew, or defending it.

What makes Strange’s origin story so satisfying is that it’s basically the story of a selfish, self-centered man who realizes the world is much bigger than him. It’s the simplest of stories at the outset, and nothing we haven’t seen before, but when mixed with the film’s contemplation of time and mortality, equates to an adventure with slightly more weight to it. By focusing on such grounded ideas, Derrickson never loses his emotional tether, allowing Strange’s journey to the end of his ego to manifest itself both thematically and metaphysically.

The film’s visuals, they’re totally unhinged and worth the price of admission alone, delivering insane action sequences which smash through the bounds of physical possibility with unabashed glee. No two battles are the same, with Strange and his colleagues defending reality, as we know it through environments that shape shift with clockwork complexity. In the best way, Derrickson’s commitment to the bizarre makes the film feel unmoored from its very foundations and liberated from its peers, going full blast into hardcore fantasy mode with a ferocious vitality and ingenuity.

The performances are like the icing on top, adding depth to characters who feel authentic and well-rounded. As Strange, Cumberbatch is perfectly cast. The film centers on his ability to balance being self-absorbed yet charming, and it’s a fine line that few could replicate. It also makes the film rewarding, to see how he changes throughout, slowly realizing the responsibility of his new powers and how much he can do with them. Swinton brings a sense of gravitas and power to the Ancient One, balancing hidden layers which become more apparent as the film progresses. As one of her most trusted, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo is a nice contrast to Strange. Confident in his powers and motivated by a burning conviction, his arc sits nicely beside Strange’s and converges in a way that makes the character more interesting than his printed counterpart. Mikkelsen has so much charisma, and even through he’s doing horribly dark things, you believe that he doesn’t view himself as a villain.

In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange’s achievements feels like a culmination of what Marvel’s done in the past, and where they’re heading in the future. It takes the origin story template and finds ways to make it feel new, working well as a standalone while still tying into the larger scheme of things. At a time when superhero films are starting to all feel and look the same, Derrickson’s latest is a rich feast that pushes the ideas of what we expect in the genre (at least visually) and adds another colorfully vibrant reality to an already dense roster of heroes.

115 minutes. Rated PG-13. Now Playing at Cinemark Downtown 10.

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