Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Doctor Strange

   If you took the virtuoso effects of Inception, the trippiness of Altered States, and the heroics and style of Batman Begins... and deftly blended them together, you'd have Doctor Strange. I can't even say all that aloud without smiling. Maybe Doctor Strange isn't perfect, and maybe it's a bit formulaic, and maybe the superhero bubble is destined to burst soon, and maybe... maybe none of that matters. Maybe Doctor Strange is so much fun and filled with so much spectacle, that it's an irresistible time at the cinema.

   There are moments in Doctor Strange that bring back the superhero feeling. So many recent comic book efforts have been so concerned with being anything but a superhero story. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War were political thrillers. Batman V Superman followed suit. But, whatever happened to just saving the world and stopping the bad guys? When did we become too cool or too old for that? Doctor Strange is about just that, and then some. See, the ultimate villain in Doctor Strange isn't Mads Mikkelsen's character, or even the requisite gigantic evil blobby CGI head. It's Dr. Stephen Strange's own ego.

   The best superhero movies have their protagonists go through an internal struggle as well as an external one. Spider-Man has Peter's struggle with responsibility, as well as his battles with the Green Goblin. Man of Steel had Clark's struggle with identity and his place in the world, as well as his inevitable showdown with Zod. Doctor Strange falls right in line. I'm not a huge fan of Cumberbatch, his work never clicked with me the way it did with others, however, he does an exceptional job as Stephen Strange, and brings his struggles to life with gusto. At just shy of 2 full hours, the movie never feels that long. Quite the opposite, it feels like a breezy 90 minutes of mysticism and superheroic adventure.

   If the movie has any major flaw, it would be that it's fairly formulaic. As a comic book fan I knew who the character, Doctor Strange, was. But to say I was intimately familiar with him wouldn't be accurate. So I was excited to be treated to an origin story I didn't already know, but the broad strokes seemed inescapably... familiar. I suppose that's the flaw in the big picture of superhero origin stories, they ALL have to follow a certain set of plot points. For example, the movies have to start out with the hero being decidedly un-super, something happens, he goes on a journey, masters his newfound skills and/or powers, and then stops the world-threatening villain who's been woefully underdeveloped so far.

   Doctor Strange doesn't do anything wholly or fundamentally fresh with that basic outline, but it does what it does well. Despite all that, the movie is lean, brawny and exciting. Director Scott Derrickson is clearly having fun with the material, and the movie is populated with excellent 'touches', like Strange checking the pulse of a foe he killed, or Mads Mikkelsen's villain, Kaecilius, explaining his motivation... with tears in his eyes. The big things don't escape that attention to detail either, like a climactic fight where time itself plays a unique factor, or then the fight scenes that take place in an Inception-esque dimension. The movie uses it's settings and surrounds to great effect in a way that few comic book movies do.

   Consider how wanton destruction has become a fundamental staple of the genre, and then consider the fact that Doctor Strange is a movie that has it's protagonist stop to check the pulse of a single insignificant and nameless henchman he dispatched. It's a movie concerned with avoiding carnage when and if at all possible, but that doesn't mean the movie isn't a huge big ball of special effects and things blowing up, but it's all very calculated and thoughtful. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how great Tilda Swinton was as The Ancient One. Jumping hurdles over the typical wise-one cliches, she has a great sense of humor as does the whole movie, but she's fantastic and deeply emotional in the role.

   When all is said and done, Doctor Strange is an excellent sign that Marvel still knows how to deliver on the big screen without a white guy named Chris headlining the movie. Doctor Strange is an exciting, mysterious, colorful, trippy, psychedelic trip into well worn Superhero territory. I loved it. Considering everything that's out right now, this should be on your immediate shortlist of things to go see in the theater. Like, top three material. Seriously.


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