Forget everything you know about Marvel movies and get prepared to enter the crazy, yet fascinating world of “Doctor Strange,” one Marvel’s smartest and riskiest projects to date.
“Doctor Strange” follows the story of arrogant and narcissistic neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses control of his hands following a fatal car accident. When Western medicine fails him, Strange turns to the mysterious ways of the East and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who teaches him the ways of magic and sorcery. But everything comes with a price, as Strange reluctantly finds himself in the middle of a war between good and evil. Strange must then decide: will he continue to live as a cold and distant man or will he embrace his role as Doctor Strange?
The story of Doctor Strange is not a familiar one, even to many comic book fans, myself included. But like they did with “Guardians of the Galaxy”—another relatively unknown story—Marvel Studios made it work. Praise should, foremost, be given to director and co-screenwriter Scott Derrikson, a relative newcomer best known for his indie horror film “Sinister,” who not only made the film’s complexities and lore coherent to moviegoers, but more importantly, made the film truly entertaining. A majority of the fun derives from the film’s astounding visual effects. Parallels will inevitably be drawn to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” especially in regards to action scenes including folding cities and a gravity-shifting hallway. Unlike Nolan, however, who was more grounded in his visual effects, Derrikson and visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti expressed no qualms in going full CGI. Save for one particular effect, the result was gorgeous and striking; the effects compliment the film’s action scenes. The world bending and magical elements incorporated into these scenes starkly contrast to the normal hand to hand combat seen in Marvel films. While 3D is usually a disappointing gimmick, “Doctor Strange” is one of the few exceptions to the rule.
The casting of this film is also well done. Cumberbatch nails his role and acutely captures the arrogance and underlying fear and disparity of his character. Additionally, Cumberbatch gave his performance in an American accent. For those who are familiar with the actor, this change in accents is noticeable, but, after thirty minutes the difference becomes irrelevant. He is a commanding presence as Doctor Strange and I am excited to see where he takes this role next. The film’s supporting cast also shines and compliments Cumberbatch’s performance quite nicely, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, one of the film’s sorcerers and Strange’s primary accomplice and Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Strange’s love interest.
Even so, the movie is not without its faults. Once again, Marvel fails to create a compelling villain. Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius) tries his best with what he is given, but ultimately his character is forgettable. The film suffers most, however, when there is no magic on screen. Nowhere is the film’s struggle with plot and character development more obvious than in the smaller, dialogue-fueled scenes. Necessary for storytelling purposes, these stretches of the film pass by with little fanfare.
Overall, “Doctor Strange” stands out not only in the Marvel Universe, but as a film itself. With it’s awe-inspiring visual effects and stellar cast, “Doctor Strange” is a must see this holiday season.
However, amidst all the hype for “Doctor Strange” the film has also been subject to considerable controversy concerning whitewashing, especially in regards to the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One, a character portrayed in the comics as a Tibetan man. While some applaud Derrikson for casting an actress in the role, many others in the film industry have spoken out against this casting, wondering why, if he wanted to cast a woman, he could not have chosen an Asian actress instead. This is not the first time a comic book movie has received criticism for whitewashing. Criticism emerged over Ben Kingsley’s turn as the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.” Yet, this film flourished at the box office and was the second highest grossing movie of 2013.
Though the controversy has received considerable media attention, it has not had any negative effects on the film’s box office performance, unlike films such as Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” or the women-led reboot of “Ghostbusters,” both which suffered losses at the box office as a result of controversy backlash. Many moviegoers boycotted Scott’s film for casting European actors in African roles. The same holds true for “Ghostbusters” which received vicious criticism from the moment the film was announced to this day, despite it being a well regarded film.
Why then is Doctor Strange immune to this fate? The film made a whopping $118.7 million at the box office this past weekend, beating the expected (and still impressive) $81 million by a considerable margin—the biggest weekend in months, and a far bigger opening weekend than “Thor,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” or “Ant-Man.” The answer stems from the studio behind the production: Marvel. Marvel’s built up its name since the releases of “Thor” and “Captain America,” resulting in a greater pull at the box office. Further, Marvel films are getting better. After films such as “Captain America: Civil War” and “Deadpool,” it seems as if Marvel can do no wrong. Moviegoers trust the Marvel brand, and they know whatever they see will at least be a fun action flick. The trust Marvel has garnered allows unknown and risky properties like “Doctor Strange” and “Ant-Man” to be made in the first place.
No matter the premise or the circumstances, as long as Marvel continues churning out well made movies, tickets will continue to sell. I was quite amused when the credits began to roll, for no one left the theater. Even after the first after credits scene, no one left. We all wanted to see the after credits scenes, for we all know the drill by now. Marvel has entranced us, and it will continue to until they make a misfire. With Marvel’s track record, that won’t be anytime soon.