Anticipation: 3/5 In the HBO produced Talking Funny, Chris Rock explains that audiences “want the same thing, but different” when it comes to their entertainment. Since its inception, Marvel Studios has definitely come to exploit that. I haven’t hidden that superhero fatigue has started to settle in my bitter, jaded self. But, I like Benedict Cumberbatch in everything he’s done, so Doctor Strange is a film I’m going to see regardless.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5 Doctor Strange is a dazzling, kaleidoscopic visual feast. Even though the film is formulaic and there are issues with specific plot points and misplaced humor, director Scott Derrickson, with brilliant stylistic choices and visual metaphors, elevates Doctor Strange to something better than it had any right to be.
An arrogant, reputable surgeon, Doctor Stephen Strange finds himself at a crossroads when a near fatal car accident leaves him unable to use his hands. Seeking ways to repair his hands to return to his medical practice, Strange meets the Ancient One, a seemingly immortal being who tries to show him that his true potential does not lie in his hands, but rather in his point-of-view. Can Strange put his away his pride and embrace his true place in the galaxy?
There is a point where we must stop comparing the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Disney have made it hard not to. They’re essentially recreating the ‘Disney Princess’ equivalent with their superheroes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man, and now, Doctor Strange. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, just that the formula of the origin story is very, very apparent in Doctor Strange, especially in this beginning of Phase 4. The obvious parallels are that of 2008’s Iron Man and 2011’s Thor, both films having arrogant protagonists learning lessons in humility. If one were to follow the logic of Disney origin stories, then my bet would be that Captain Marvel will be more along the lines of Captain America: The First Avenger and Ant-Man, heroes that are essentially weak at first, but through demonstration of fundamental probity (and a little ‘science-fiction’) are given the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the hero moniker.
However, there are more positives to Doctor Strange than there are negatives. As a result, I will start with the negatives. First, is the score. Michael Giacchino pulls a little of a Hans Zimmer Gladiator/Pirates-of-the-Caribbean oddity with his music. It sounds so similar to his Star Trek score that it was distracting to me. I’m certain that there is another way to express inter-dimensional or galactic sounds than sharing between films.
Second, some of the humor in the MCU is starting to be bit much for my taste, and felt forced and out of place in some occasions in Doctor Strange. For example, in one instance, the Cloak of Levitation intervenes in a rather heartfelt scene. Instead of letting the audience dwell in the emotion Doctor Strange is feeling at that particular moment, the filmmakers decided that it was better to cut the tension by having the Cloak do something “funny.” I find that a little hypocritical, and it also leads to another gripe I have with the film: there are no stakes. Except for the addition of the Ancient One as an intermediary, Kaecilius’ plan is no different than Obadiah Sloane’s in Iron Man. Both Kaecilius and Obadiah want some mighty element that would give them power beyond their true potential. Although the final conflict between Strange and Kaecilius delivers monumental action that further probes the concept of relative time in the film, the result is rather trite.
The positives, on the other hand, are the cast, the visuals, and director Scott Derrickson. Benedict Cumberbatch seems like a no brainer as Doctor Stephen Strange and I dare anyone to posit a better actor for the part. Yes, sometimes it’s a little hard to accept his American accent, but that’s only because we’ve grown accustomed to his real accent, (Russian…). Cumberbatch’s hand waves aren’t distracting like Elisabeth Olsen’s in Avengers 2 and 2.5 (yup, I went there). Chiwetel Ejiofor is always brilliant. You need only to watch Redbelt (2008) to see that the man can do no wrong. Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius does what he can with the little he is given to do. But come on, am I really going to start picking apart Mikkelsen’s performance? No. I could watch the man cutting strips of paper for two hours and still be impressed. Rachel McAdams does feel a little underused, but the emotional heft she brings to the film in helping Strange realize how much of an asshole he’s been, makes her necessary, even crucial. Benedict Wong is fine as the comic relief and exposition bearer all wrapped into one nice, neat, unsmiling stoic master that eventually has a payoff that will please some and leave others cold and indifferent. I was somewhere in the middle.
Which brings me to Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. There something in Swinton’s eyes that makes you feel like you’re witnessing a whole different universe. And I’m talking about her as a person. She has an eloquence and a sophistication that we very seldom see. Her performance shows a dedication to her craft that is beyond what any other actor could have brought to the part. The way Swinton exudes the Ancient One’s wisdom really comes to fruition in a scene where she and Strange are watching a lightning storm accompanied by snowfall. I won’t spoil what she says, but suffice it to say that it was pleasantly heart-breaking. Casting her as the Ancient One was a master stroke.
Moving on from the cast, the special effects are astounding in Doctor Strange. Yes, there are landscape twists and tucks that will remind you of Inception and time lapses that will conjure up whatever remaining memories you have of the Matrix films, but Doctor Strange does such a sensational job at being its own extravagant entity that it’s hard to find fault in the filmmakers’ approach. I must say that this is one of the most proficiently bizarre additions to the MCU in terms of visual style that it made me eager to see where the Avengers would fit into the mix. We can understand that Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are part of the inter-dimensionality Doctor Strange inhabits by the end of the film, but settling the Avengers in this multiverse will be quite a feat. But, I have faith in the Russos.
The last element I loved about the film is director Scott Derrickson. He has crafted a multi-layered assessment of the concept of time. Although Doctor Strange is formulaic in terms of narrative, it’s the fundamental depth of how Derrickson explores the concept of time throughout the film that kept me intrigued. To set-up the time motif, Derrickson first establishes a focus on hands. Now, it seems straightforward that Doctor Strange himself would be worried about his hands given the nature of his job as a surgeon, but Derrikson introduces Strange by showing his hands first as opposed to his face. The shot is a close-up of the ritualistic pre-operation rinsing of the hands under water followed by the procedural donning of latex gloves, at once to protect oneself from any blood from the operation the surgeon is about to perform, but also to avoid contaminating the area he is about to operate. Strange operates, the operation is successful, the patient lives. But, it isn’t as simple as that, is it? What Derrickson’s introduction to Strange subtly implies is that the hands of a surgeon can delay mortality; that they manipulate time on a microcosmic scale. Derrickson re-emphasizes this notion by having Strange conduct surgery again within minutes of his first successful operation, but there is a sense of urgency at this stage; time is pressing. Again, the operation is successful and the patient lives. As such, mortality is delayed once more and the patient’s time line has been altered.
Derrickson further explores the time motif when he shows Strange’s collection of time pieces. Strange is getting ready to attend a conference, and once he has fit himself into a nice tuxedo, he proceeds to open a drawer filled with watches carefully placed in watch winders. The shot of the drawer may seem like a throw away shot, something to highlight the amount of money Strange has, but it’s actually a microcosmic representation of the power Strange will come to possess macrocosmically. Recuperating the hand imagery of the surgery, watches also have hands, and their hands are responsible for keeping time on their respective devices. Strange can manipulate all those watches to give the time he wants, whenever he wants. That being the case, the imagery again implies that he has the potential to manipulate time. Now, if you can indulge me just a little further, I would go as far as to say that Derrickson is foreshadowing the different times and galaxies Strange will eventually come to navigate once he understands the Ancient One’s teachings later in the film. Every watch in the drawer spinning on a watch winder is a microcosmic representation of a galaxy that is governed by its own laws of time. Strange simply hasn’t been awoken to seeing that yet. He can only see the surgeon he is, rather than the inter-dimensional surgeon he has the potential to become.
Which brings me to how Derrickson uses the elegant Jaeger-Le Coultre Master Ultra-Thin Perpetual time piece Doctor Strange wears. The engraving on the back of the watch is “Time will tell you how much I love you – Christine” and that enforces the sentimental attachment Strange has for his one-time lover. But, it also implies that there is a spirituality to him, even though what is most noticeable is his arrogance. Christine had declined accompanying Strange to his conference, therefore the logic in his choosing the time piece she gave him implies that although Strange knows she will not be with him in person, he will have her in spirit. Perhaps this is some of the potential the Ancient One saw.
However, the selection of the time piece from the drawer also sets-up a classic three beat structure Strange will evolve through in the film; Establishment, Reinforcement, Subversion. There are three close-ups on the watch Strange wears; one in each act, all highlighting where Strange is in his ‘hero evolution,’ for lack of a better term. The first close-up occurs when Strange is getting ready for his conference. Strange doesn’t have the capacity to see the potential for relative time, even if he does manipulate it on a smaller scale as a surgeon. The hands on the watch mirror the functioning of Strange’s hands as a surgeon. Therefore, Derrickson establishes that Strange wears the watch as a device that tells him time and therefore, like us, he is a slave to time moving forward, a prisoner at time’s mercy rather than the inter-dimensional surgeon he can become.
The second close-up of the watch comes at the beginning of the second act after Strange has had an altercation with thugs that are trying to steal his watch. Mordo hands the watch back to Strange and the audience sees that it is now broken. As such, Strange losing the capacity to use his hands is now mirrored by the broken watch no longer being able to tell time; the hands resting still. But, what the shot of the watch reinforces is that Strange has yet to develop the capacity to see the potential for relative time. What it also indicates is that where he is headed, to meet the Ancient One, time is relative and that the watch isn’t necessary. The close-up Derrickson uses, as a result, subtly puts forth that like the watch’s hands, Strange’s hands are not the issue; it is his point of view on the experience of time that will need to change for progress to be made.
The third close-up comes at the end of the film once Strange has embraced the Ancient One’s teachings, has accepted his fate, and has confronted the antagonist (no spoilers). During the second act, the audience sees Strange practicing with the Eye of Agamotto on an apple, but when he does so, his focus is still to repair his damaged hands. However, once the conflict is resolved at the end of the third act, Strange has used the Eye of Agamotto according to the lesson the Ancient One teaches him during the lightning storm scene addressed earlier. Derrickson then uses his final close-up of the still broken watch to subvert what he had established and reinforced during the first and second acts. With the last close-up, Derrickson shows how Strange has grown to see the potential for relative time, how he can manipulate it for the benefit of humanity, and embrace his role as an inter-dimensional surgeon.
With that, Scott Derrickson now has my attention. I loved his filmmaking craft and I am eager to see what project he helms next.
Despite the few qualms I had with the film, Doctor Strange is a potent origin story that shows just how Marvel has come to perfect their formula. There is no question that Scott Derrickson is more than capable of handling big-budget movie-making and, for me, he saved Doctor Strange from becoming just another generic entry into the MCU. See Doctor Strange on the biggest screen you can, IMAX is definitely preferable. I seldom do this, but I may just head out to see it again.
What did you think of Doctor Strange? Sound off in the comment section below!