Review: "Dr. Strange" (2016)
Title: Dr. Strange (2016), Blue-ray
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Bias: I am a Marvel fanboy. Whether it’s the comics or the films, I’ve been a fan of Marvel superheroes for most of my life.
In a Nutshell: Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), a brilliant and arrogant neurosurgeon, suffers permanent nerve damage to his hands after surviving a near-fatal car accident. After exhausting the limits of medical science, he travels east in search of a fabled healer known only as The Ancient One (Swinton). Under the Ancient One’s tutelage, he enters a dark and dangerous world of magic and mysticism, and discovers his true calling—as well as the threat posed by the renegade sorcerer Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) and his master, Dormammu.
The Critique: As the fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is, in terms of plot, anything but. It is the standard hero’s journey, with an arc that leads from hubris to humility with well-practiced efficiency. With such a formulaic approach, it is easy to overlook the ways in which the film distinguishes itself. While the (literally) world-bending visuals draw some inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), director Scott Derrickson stages creative action set-pieces against that backdrop that are unlike anything I’ve seen. While spectacular action is to be expected with a big budget superhero film, the adaptation of Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko’s trippy otherworldly visuals is simply incredible.
Where the film falls short is an overreliance on the charm and talents of its cast (which are considerable) to tell a story that will feel familiar to anyone who has already seen Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), or Green Lantern (2011). Cumberbatch and Swinton are perfect, yet unsurprising, in their roles; Mikkelsen’s villain is underdeveloped; McAdams is wasted in a thankless love-interest role; and only Ejiofor manages to convey a depth to his character that exists within the performance, rather than in the script. This is an average film elevated by an above-average cast and excellent spectacle.
Shout-out(s): Less of a shout-out, and more an addressing of the elephant in the room—Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. I’m not especially interested in rehashing the (justified) whitewashing controversy of her casting. I will note that (1) Swinton does exactly what she does better than almost anyone else, in portraying an ethereal and mercurial character who shifts between comforting mentor and ominous presence in microseconds and (2) is done no favors by the decision to present the character and setting in what can only be described as Asian-in-everything-but-name.
Special Features: Along with the second hilarious (and bizarre) Team Thor short (directed by What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok’s Taiki Waititi) featuring the adventures of Thor and his mortal roommate Darryl Jacobson, the Blu-ray also includes the standard behind-the-scenes featurettes, a Marvel Phase 2 retrospective and Phase 3 preview, gag reel, and director’s commentary with Scott Derrickson.
To Buy, to Rent, or to Netflix: I find nearly all of the MCU films incredibly rewatchable (with the exceptions of Incredible Hulk and to a lesser extent Iron Man 2) so it was an easy purchase for me. If you’re in that camp it’s worth picking up. For the more casual Marvel viewers, it’s worth a rental for the added bonus of the Thor short, over waiting for streaming.
Photo Credit: Marvel Studios