86. Doctor Strange

Here we are, with Doctor Strange, the next chapter in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe!  This was also entry number three in my 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About column.  Marvel continues to dive into their vast library of characters, fully confident that said characters are strong enough to be well-received even if some of them, as is the case with Doctor Strange, don’t have the same level of recognition as Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and many others.  (It should be noted that Iron Man and Thor didn’t have that level of recognition, either, until their films came along).

I honestly haven’t been blown away by the marketing campaign for Doctor Strange.  While the talented and diverse cast has been appropriately featured, the film has often been made to appear as though it’s basically an Inception clone.  That doesn’t echo the Doctor Strange that I’ve known my whole life, so I was really hoping for so much more than that when the film finally arrived.  Keeping my hopes alive has been the fact that apparently some people have loved it because it did fantastic business overseas, last weekend, and it’s been well-received by critics, sitting at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 74 Metascore, as of this writing.

My exposure to the character previous to the movie has been consistent throughout my life, though not as extensive as with many other Marvel characters.  I read a lot of THE DEFENDERS when I was growing up (mostly as back issues.  I’m not that old!), due to my Hulk obsession, and Strange was almost always featured prominently as the de facto leader of that team.  He also tends to have a heavy presence in most of the big Marvel events that affect the whole line of books.  But I’ve rarely read his solo book.  Even so, I had a good idea of what I should be expecting, here.

In the lead-up to the release of the movie, I avoided reading reviews in depth, but the blurbs I saw mostly raved about the visuals, the visuals, and the visuals.  And that’s great, but it honestly had me a little worried that the visuals were all the film had to offer.  I am happy to report that this is nowhere near the case.  Marvel Studios has established a reputation for itself as putting a lot of effort into developing strong characters and dialogue and Doctor Strange is absolutely no exception.

After getting a new goosebump-inducing Marvel Studios opening logo sequence, we see a glimpse of the craziness to come in the life of Stephen Strange before meeting Strange, himself.  He’s never been blasted by radiation or bitten by any scientifically-enhanced critters.  He’s a surgeon.  A normal, everyday, extremely intelligent surgeon.  Benedict Cumberbatch immediately grips the audience with his charisma and he’s impossible to take your eyes off of during the whole film.  He demands attention with every word, every facial expression, and every wave of his hands.  Cumberbatch succumbs to the role completely and makes Stephen Strange someone that casual audiences will remember, invest in, and want to see more of.

The film is far funnier than I, or apparently anyone else in my screening, anticipated.  Strange has always been a bit of a quirky character and he’s a sharp cookie, too.  That comes across well and the rest of the cast keeps up nicely.  I personally found the interactions between Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) to be one of the highlights of the entire film.  If you can’t enjoy the pair of them, then I mourn for your dark, dark soul.

And, yes, the visuals are as impressive as you may have heard.  There were certain things that I was hoping for – just from a personal perspective – and I got them.  This world and these ideas can be daunting for the uninitiated.  Marvel knows it, so they take their time a bit.  The pacing is perfect, allowing the viewer to develop a connection to the people, first, and then slowly be introduced into the greater scope of infinity.  Strange, himself, serves as the audience surrogate as this is all new to him, as well.  By the end (stay alllllll the way through the credits.  But, of course, if you don’t that by now, you’re actively resisting learning new things.), we have a larger idea of what’s waiting for Strange – and for us – in the future.  It’s obvious that we’ve only scratched the surface.

Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson does a great job with the material and the film, as a whole.  I do think he could have used a little more guidance with some of the action scenes.  Much of the camera work is too tight – especially considering how fast the cuts are – and doesn’t always give the audience enough of a view to see exactly what is happening.  This isn’t prevalent enough to be a consistent problem and I really only remember it being an issue in one scene.  But, for my money, the greatest action scene artist in comic book history is Sal Buscema and I would love it if all comic book film directors based their action scenes on his work.  If his art was used as makeshift storyboards, this sort of thing would never be a problem.

Honestly, though, that’s a small complaint.  I can’t imagine how one could watch Doctor Strange and not have a good time.  Yes, it’s an origin story and, therefore, a little formulaic.  But we should all know, by now, that the origin story is about the journey, not the destination.  The events that lead the protagonist to become a hero informs what kind of hero they become and the decisions they make, as well as the methods they employ.  That’s what sets one origin story apart from the next.  Stephen Strange’s arc is unique unto itself.  His motivations are different and, under other circumstances, surrounded by other people, he could have very well become a villain.  So, it’s easy and devoid of insight to focus on the person-gains-abilities-and-defeats-villain story while remaining delightfully oblivious to all of the underlying subtleties.

Simply put, while I always have high expectation for Marvel Studios, those expectations were a bit tempered for Doctor Strange.  But I shouldn’t have been worried.  While this isn’t my favorite film of the year, it’s up there and I feel comfortable labeling it as my favorite comic book movie of the year.  That’s mostly because, while I loved Civil War, that film met my expectations while Doctor Strange significantly exceeded them.  With this movie, I got things I wasn’t expecting, both in terms of filmmaking components and character/storyline inclusions and I can’t help but think that it will end up being one of the bigger crowd-pleasers of the year.  Marvel Studios does it again as Doctor Strange is pure magic.

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