There's a lot going on in the world right now, so let's focus on something fantastical and imaginative to distract us! Marvel has continually risen the bar for superhero movies, integrating sub-genres into their films that keep their formula as fresh as possible throughout the last 8 years. I've been looking forward to this movie ever since it was announced, though I was a bit disheartened when I first saw how some of the imagery looked so similar to my all-time favorite film, Inception. Still, the other trailers seemed to emphasize the mystical nature of the story rather than the mind-bending aspects, and my anticipation and expectation for the movie rose steadily as a result. After so many traditional superhero films from the prolific studio, I was ready for something completely different. Some might even say strange... Can I get away with that?
Dr. Steven Strange is a narcissistic and world-renowned neurosurgeon who eschews any surgeries that have a low rate of survival so as to not sully his "perfect record" in the operating room. However, on his way to a speaking arrangement his reckless driving while looking at his cell phone causes him to collide with another vehicle and careen off a cliff. The impact shatters the bones and shreds the nerve endings in his hands, leaving him physically incapable of returning to his surgical work. In a desperate attempt to regain his abilities, he seeks out a formerly paraplegic patient who has regained the use of his legs despite the injury being pronounced inoperable. This sends Strange off on a journey across the world to seek the hidden mystical knowledge that can restore him to his former glory.
This movie sends us off in a fascinating direction from the very beginning, as we see a group of extremists invading a library to steal a page from a book of mystical arts. From there, the Ancient One (played spectacularly by Tilda Swinton) chases the group, led by the villainous Kaecilius, into a city-bending battle in which the Ancient One displays her magical prowess and sends the survivors fleeing to lick their wounds. The way this movie portrays the mystical powers is a great marriage of martial arts and a visually-stunning effect you might see in a typical Marvel film. That combination gives these magical elements a semblance of grounding that makes us believe that this is something our hero can eventually learn to wield. It also succeeds in setting this brand of magic apart from the style in which the characters in the Harry Potter universe use their magic, which is important to differentiate from the upcoming (and great-looking) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
I already mentioned Tilda Swinton, but let me elaborate just a bit by saying how invested in her character I was from the moment she steps on screen. Not only are her action scenes incredible, but the precision with which she delivers her lines is mesmerizing. If I was ever to learn the mystic arts, I would want her to teach them to me (even if some of her methods are a bit extreme). As for our title character, I think Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the up-and-coming Sorcerer Supreme. He's intelligent enough to completely pull off the arrogant surgeon, while also able to project vulnerability to the point where we can go along with him on this soul-seeking journey. The character is intentionally unlikable at the beginning of the film, but the humbling that Strange encounters both physically and mentally elicits a huge change in his motivations. Cumberbatch throws himself into this role, and his considerable talents help bring this character his own life on the big screen.
If I had to criticize this movie I'd say that I wish there was a bit more resolution with the love story between Strange and Christine (played by an always-charming Rachel McAdams). While I appreciated the scenes they had together and thought their chemistry was pretty strong, there just seemed to be one scene missing between them that gave us some kind of closure. I'm sure that the following movies will follow up on this, but I was a little disappointed we didn't get just a bit more of it in this one. While the humor was mostly used correctly and executed well, there were a few times that I thought it interfered a bit with the flow of the story. Hopefully Marvel will be able to refine their tone just a bit depending on the character of focus going forward.
Ultimately, this was a fantastically fun film with trippy imagery, great performances, and a terrific introduction to one of my new favorite Avengers. Do yourselves a favor and see this movie in IMAX 3D, which I rarely recommend, but this one is definitely worth it. Also, please stay throughout the entire credits, as there are 2 post-credits scenes that you will not want to miss. This movie is probably in the top 5 Marvel films and is easily the best character origin story since the first Iron Man. I thought this movie was incredibly entertaining, and I'm going to give it three and a half stars (but really knocking on the door of four stars). I can't wait to see what Marvel gives us next year!
DOCTOR STRANGE is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence