Movie Review: Dr. Strange (2016)

Enter the Sorcerer Supreme in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), adding magic to its already rich tapestry of power. Dr. Strange tells the origin story of Stephen Strange, MD, a brilliant surgeon who becomes the foremost magic-wielder on Earth. Per my dad’s advice, we watched the film in 3D. Worth it!

While it’s routine for superhero movies to dish up glorious visual spectacles, the heart of any movie is the character(s). In Dr. Strange, the protagonist, played by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, begins as an extraordinarily talented man with the arrogance to match. It’s established early on that his wild success can also be attributed to avoiding high-risk procedures to expand his impact in the medical field. When an accident damages his hands, he exhausts all clinical possibilities until he finally goes to Nepal to find alternative healing.

The Ancient One, played by a sublime Tilda Swinton, is instrumental in Dr. Strange’s transformation. Her strength and wisdom are established early on, as she pursues the renegade Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has stolen pages from a spellbook for mysterious reasons. As Dr. Strange trains in the mystic arts—getting laughs in the process at the expense of the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong)—Kaecilius puts his plan into motion, thereby (gasp!) threatening the entire planet! Can Dr. Strange overcome his limitations, pointed out often by supporting characters, and save the world?

Speaking of limitations, a problem with Kaecilius is that viewers are only told of his motivations. By contrast, for example, Zemo’s background is shown piecemeal throughout Captain America: Civil War, culminating in his talk with Black Panther—“When the dust cleared, and the screaming stopped, it took me two days until I found their bodies. My father, still holding my wife and son in his arms.” That’s compelling. Meanwhile, Kaecilius just rants about time being the enemy, weakening his effectiveness as the main antagonist.

Apart from the meh villain, two other elements of Dr. Strange underwhelmed. One, the soundtrack by Michael Giacchino draws too heavily from his work on Star Trek Beyond. The only standout piece is “Go for Baroque,” which awesomely sounds like a track from a classic NES/SNES game. Second, the pacing was too quick—and this is an observation shared by my 11-year-old nephew. The audience got crash courses in spellcasting, relics, astral projection, sanctums, the dark dimension, the Eye of Agamotto, etc.—and not too much on why Dr. Strange inherits the position of Sorcerer Supreme. “You were born to be a sorcerer,” someone tells him, but to me it’s like being promoted to full professor after taking advanced courses in the second semester of your freshman year, FFS.

Having said that, Dr. Strange excels in many other areas. The fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed, the reality-bending scenes look terrific, and the humor is great, if intermittent. And finally, Dr. Strange resolves the climactic showdown in a way that’s both smart and satisfying. So while my comic-knowledge of Dr. Strange is limited to him showing up in the X-Men series whenever demons are involved, MCU Dr. Strange has established him as a very intelligent and capable sorcerer with a cool cape who will be very useful in the fight against Thanos.

Overall, Dr. Strange is an entertaining superhero origin story that accomplishes its goals of (1) introducing Dr. Strange and the magic dimension, and (2) setting us up for the upcoming Infinity Wars.

TL;DR: Meh hero + Inception on steroids = Dr. Strange

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This post brought to you by this damn cough that won’t go away!