Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 11 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. Typical Marvel movie stuff: lots of action sequences, including a violent car crash in slow motion, lots of hand-to-hand fighting, a character is beheaded, others are stabbed, and still others are killed in various ways. Some cursing; some sexual tension between the protagonist and his former girlfriend; some surgery scenes that are detailed with blood, including an up-close shot of someone receiving stitches and another of the protagonist’s hands swollen, bloody, and full of pins; and some frightening, nightmarish imagery in a “dark dimension” in space.
The latest film in the Marvel cinematic universe, ‘Doctor Strange,’ is the weirdest to date—and that’s a good thing. But while the CGI effects are impressive, the character development is insufficient.
By Roxana Hadadi
Things started getting weird in the Marvel cinematic universe with 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and they take another definitive step in the bizarre direction with “Doctor Strange.”
Visually, the film is a smorgasbord of physical impossibilities and broken rules, but narratively, this is the same sort of rushed, incomplete storytelling that has defined these Marvel films since the box office dominance began. Character development is lacking, and this especially strong cast is underserved practically the whole way around.
The titular “Doctor Strange” is the neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, of “Zoolander 2”), an immensely talented, extremely egotistical doctor in New York City. He’s quirky—listening to music while he performs brain surgery, and quizzing his assistants on trivia about the songs—but a pure alpha, pulling rank over other doctors and reveling in his reputation.
All that changes when, distracted one night while driving, he crashes his high-end sportscar, shattering his hands in the accident. Severe nerve damage means that he can barely move his hands, let alone perform surgery again, and in his rage and disgust he pushes away everyone, including ex-girlfriend and fellow physician Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, of “Aloha”). “You ruined me,” he tells them, but Christine isn’t wrong when she deems his quest for some kind of magical cure as “mania,” not medicine.
Nevertheless, Strange ends up in Nepal, where he tracks down the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, of “Hail, Caesar!”), who has supposedly helped other people regain movement after paralysis. But is Strange ready for the world of the “mystic arts” and “astral forms”? To cure himself, the Ancient One says he must “redirect the spirit to better heal the body,” yet in the next breath she says that Strange is a man defined by “stubborn, arrogance, ambition.” Can he accept changing who he is inside to change who he is outside?
And while Strange’s concerns are insular, the Ancient One and her students, including devotee Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, of “Secret in Their Eyes”) and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong, of “The Martian”), are engaged in a cosmic war for the future of Earth. The villain is the Ancient One’s former student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, of “Clash of the Titans”), who harbors a grudge against her and wants to sell out the world to the evil cosmic being Dormammu.
After stealing information about a secret ritual to summon Dormammu, Kaecilius travels between New York City, London, and Hong Kong, attacking the Ancient One’s followers and trying to send the world into chaos. He could have a role in Strange’s hero’s journey, but only if Strange decides to be a hero—which he may not.
In the spectrum of Marvel superheroes, Strange probably aligns most with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and Cumberbatch plays him prickly, egotistical, and selfish; when McAdams’s Christine exhaustedly says to him, “Stephen, everything is about you,” you understand in an instant how the relationship fell apart. But while Cumberbatch is serviceable—and he has great bearing for Strange’s silly facial hair and levitating cape—there is no truly defining moment in his character evolution. He goes from not caring about the rest of the world to deciding to save it surprisingly quickly, and there isn’t a strong enough sense of what’s driving him to make the character a fully formed entity.
That’s the kind of unevenness that permeates “Doctor Strange.” The Ancient One, as played by Swinton, is a Celtic woman, but how she and her followers drape themselves in Asian-inspired garb and reside in Nepal, and her tendency to constantly tinker with a hand fan, smack of casual Orientalism. Mikkelsen and Ejiofor are as electric as ever, but their roles are shockingly thin. And while there are great throwaway lines here, like when Mordo admonishes Strange for thinking the wifi password is some kind of mantra, when Strange questions Wong about whether he listens to Beyonce, or when Kaecilius keeps calling Strange “mister” instead of “doctor,” they feel slipped into a script that is otherwise convoluted.
What you’ll remember most are the CGI effects that look like “Inception” on LSD: portals opening between worlds and going in all kinds of directions; buildings crumpling and stretching and rotating, breaking off into sections and flying through the air; people levitating and leaping, manipulating the world around them easily and effortlessly. Much of what makes “Doctor Strange” unusual for a Marvel film are those insane visuals, and they deliver. But they can’t fill the gap of everything else that “Doctor Strange” is lacking.
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