THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Marvel has made a lot of good movies as part of their Cinematic Universe, but the most entertaining of them seem to be the ones where they bring lesser-known comic book characters into the spotlight. Guardians of the Galaxy would certainly qualify, as would Ant-Man. So does Doctor Strange. Maybe it's because origin stories are always the best, or perhaps it's because new characters don't have to fit as narrowly into the established structure of the MCU. Whatever the reason, they're great fun, and this one is no exception.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant and egotistical neurosurgeon. Following a car wreck, his hands are badly damaged, meaning he may never again be able to practice medicine. He travels to Kathmandu to study alternate healing methods under the tutelage of a mystic known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her assistant Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They teach him about healing, but also about the “multiverse,” astral planes, and different dimensions of time and space. Strange eventually develops the power to manipulate these things. His powers are put to the test when a sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) starts trying to summon the malicious entity Dormammu from the dark dimension to destroy the three Sanctums that protect mankind from evil.
Got it? If not, don't worry. There's a lot of mumbo-jumbo thrown around in the movie. All you really need to know is that our hero has magical powers that he has to use against a bad guy. A more down-to-earth plot – and believe me when I say that I've already simplified things considerably – would have been nice, but then again, Doctor Strange wouldn't be Doctor Strange if it wasn't pumped full of confusing mystical-sounding talk. That stuff is just part and parcel of it.
Much more effective is the way the movie incorporates dazzling special effects into its story. The best scenes find Strange maneuvering through dimensions in which cities or other environments fold in on themselves or expand outward, much like a real-life kaleidoscope. Those trippy visuals add an air of mystique to the story, really creating a fantastical world where magic and spells warp reality. Magnificent use of 3D sweetens the deal.
Action scenes also benefit from the offbeat approach. This isn't a typical Marvel movie in that sense. It's not full of heroes and villains smashing each other into buildings (although that admittedly happens once or twice). In fact, the climactic fight between Strange and Dormammu doesn't even involve traditional combat at all. Strange comes up with a way to fight the sinister force that cleverly relies on both a spell and his own innate intelligence. It's one of the most original, satisfying “boss battles” in any comic book-based movie to date.
Benedict Cumberbatch is sensational as Strange. His performance helps the human side of the story shine just as much as the fantasy side. The actor emphasizes how Strange starts off with very selfish motives. His goal is only to regain full use of his hands so that he can return to work and the ego boost that accompanies being one of the world's top surgeons. All the powers he learns to wield are, to him, merely tools to get his old life back. Over time, though, Strange comes to see that the Hippocratic Oath he took as a medical professional can be adapted to the world of mysticism. That's a compelling character arc, one that makes Doctor Strange a rock solid origin story. Cumberbatch grounds the picture in much the same way that Robert Downey, Jr. did in the first Iron Man. It's too bad, though, that Rachel McAdams is stuck in a thankless girlfriend role that goes nowhere.
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has made a movie that delivers everything you'd want or expect from a Marvel adventure, but which also feels fresh and new. Doctor Strange has solid acting, some genuinely funny moments of humor, and enthralling, eye-popping effects. Prepare for the good doc to rightfully experience a massive surge in popularity.
( 1/2 out of four)
Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!