Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Healing Hands

Year: 2016
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

We’re two films deep into Marvel’s Phase 3 and going strong. I mean, if Ant-Man didn’t derail the superhero powerhouse’s stranglehold over Hollywood, Doctor Strange certainly wasn’t going to. But still, the other shoe has to drop sometime.

Luckily, Doctor Strange mostly deserves its box office success. It’s probably the best film from director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil), who has made a career out of mediocre horror projects. Although its implications for the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe are worrisome (Doctor Strange joins Scarlet Witch in their cadre of massively overpowered characters with the introduction of straight-up magic), it’s a fun enough kaleidoscope of a film.

Quite literally.

In Doctor Strange, a brain surgeon with the actual god-given name Dr. Stephen Strange is, to put it light, an asshole. He’s a cocky, flagrantly rich genius who cares more about his reputation for greatness than actually saving lives. He shuns the film’s Useless Female Character Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who’s into him for some unfathomable reason, and treats his staff like crap. When he loses his surgery skills in a bizarrely hands-centric automobile accident, he desperately seeks increasingly experimental treatments, eventually finding himself at the Kamar-Taj compound in Kathmandu, run by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).

Although he only wants to learn enough to heal his hands, The Ancient One and her disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) begin to teach Strange to channel ancient magic, in the hopes that the medical genius can help them save the world from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), an ex-student who has turned to the Dark Side, and is now attempting to – yadda yadda, big floating evil lights in the sky.

I can’t wait for the inevitable Kaecilius make-up tutorials.

As far as I can tell, the only truly unique thing Doctor Strange has to offer the MCU is its bizarre visual schema. The mystical, otherworldly dimensions accessed by the warriors of Kamar-Taj are an infinitely recurring series of shapes and colors that fold into one another in legible but uncanny patterns.

Sometimes it looks like a back catalogue episode of Rainbow Brite. Sometimes it looks like Benedict Cumberbatch got trapped inside a blacklight poster. Mostly it looks like they saw Inception one too many times. But when this surreal imagery is good, it can be truly great, especially in the film’s most straight-up horrific image: Doctor Strange’s fingers sprouting an infinitum of hands that tear him apart. This imagery is frequently frustrating and generic, but it’s bold and colorful, offering something visually stimulating for once in is godforsaken franchise.

It’s a good thing too, because Doctor Strange is a pretty cookie cutter entry into the MCU for so many reasons. Let me count the ways.

1) The protagonist is a f**king asshole.

Iron Man he is not. Stephen Strange prances through life putting people down and calmly rebelling against the rules. Only, instead of serving an actual character arc, he is allowed to be a raging gaper the entire film and is mostly rewarded for it, even though he’s pretty explicitly following the same path at Kamar-Taj that the villain did. Maybe this doesn’t work because Cumberbatch isn’t as effortlessly charming as Robert Downey, Jr. Or maybe it’s because his performance is handicapped by a strangled American accent. But Doctor Strange is more abrasive than Doctor House and I’m really not excited to spend more time with him.

Also, Tilda, if you don’t want people to read the Super Secret Evil Magic Book, maybe don’t have it displayed right in the middle of the room.

2) The villain is a wet mop.

Marvel villains get a bad rap for being boring and undercharacterized, and Kaecilius fits that description like a glove. Mikkelsen nails a couple tossed-off quips, but he makes next to no impression with his geeky ponytail and Alice Cooper make-up. His motives are murky, he’s onscreen for what feels like ten minutes, and he’s quickly dispatched with the weakest deus to ever machina.

3) Female character? What female character?

Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, and Jane Foster have all been given a chance to shine outside of being just love interests, but the MCU is also full of characters like Sharon Carter, who exist just to kiss Captain America in a pointless and really gross thirty-second scene. Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer falls squarely in the Sharon camp. She waits offscreen twiddling her thumbs until Doctor Strange has a use for her, after which he immediately ditches her again. They don’t even have a scene together during the last half hour, because the film completely forgets she exists. It’s a massive waste of a talented actress.

Speaking of…

Yeah, as much as I love me some Tilda Swinton, she’s not up to much here other than some exquisitely timed gags. She’s trapped in an Obi Wan Kenobi role, devoid of all personality other than “wise and mysterious,” and the way the movie plays the reveal that The Ancient One is a woman (eek!) is so painfully 90’s. And then the score sounds like it was ripped straight from an 8-bit Legend of Zelda game. I know that’s not related, but this review is winding down. I had to get it out there.

A lot of Doctor Strange is frustrating or mediocre, but since when has any Marvel movie been much different? The gags this time around are remarkably funny, even a bit of slapstick comedy that couldn’t have worked in any other context, and there are two genuinely terrific action setpieces: one an astral battle in a surgical suite, the other a fight through a city street as time races backwards.

Doctor Strange makes some very interesting choices in its presentation and its surrealist aesthetic, and these manage to redeem its severest flaws. It’s another fun popcorn superhero movie, and I guess I’m OK with that.

TL;DR: Doctor Strange is a forgettable superhero flick spruced up with some cool surreal imagery.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1015
Reviews In This Series
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)


  1. We had really differing reactions to this one, I guess. The core story, I thought, was pretty good--the "learning humility" parts anyway, which is what really decisively separate Strange from Stark in my mind--while the humor was almost entirely inappropriate to the tone (if, happily, not exactly *gratingly* bad). Still, I'm glad you got something out of it.

    All that said, I am amazed (in a good way, I guess?) that you could write anything last night. I am very, very sad today.

    1. I actually wrote this a couple days ago. Last night I was out of commission, big time. It's going to take a LONG time to dig out of this hole.