Friday, November 4, 2016

'Doctor Strange' Is A Superhero Movie On Peyote




This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

Having suffered this year through both Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, I went into Doctor Strange with some trepidation. Yes, both of those disasters were DC flicks, and Doctor Strange is the latest entry into the expanding Marvel cinematic universe, which has time and again proven to be far superior. But along with B vs S, and Suicide Squad, this year has also brought us Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, and X-Men: Apocalypse. Can you blame a woman for feeling some superhero fatigue?

At least Doctor Strange is going for something a little different, at times coming across as a superhero movie on peyote. Which makes sense, since the character's comic book rise concurred with the psychedelic sixties (even if its creators insist they were nothing but squares).

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, indeed, an actual doctor, a brilliant and arrogant neurosurgeon who trades romantic banter with Christine (Rachel McAdams), a fellow surgeon and former romantic partner. It seems they didn't break up as much as his growing ego just kind of pushed her out the door.

So, of course, he lives alone in huge New York apartment in the clouds, with only his drawers full of kinetic watches (FORESHADOWING!) to keep him company. He's the kind of guy who drives recklessly across winding two lane roads while checking his phone messages. Of course, that ends up with him nearly losing his life and tragically losing almost all use of this hands. And what's a brilliant surgeon without his hands?

When western medicine fails him, he seeks out alternative treatments, on a quest that leads him to Kathmandu, and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an oracle/guru/witch/swami/sorcerer/everything else "mystical," who convinces the doctor the cure for his broken hands is via a stronger spiritual center.

There's some controversy surrounding the casting of Swinton in a role originally written as an Asian man. Director Scott Derrickson's defense is basically that the original character was a racial stereotype, so by casting a white woman, they were able to avoid those racist undertones. Of course, another reaction to such a character could have been to just write a better version of him, but with that said, I will admit I appreciated Swinton's presence. A lot. She's easily one of the best things about the movie, bringing her trademarked brand of kookiness, which is always delightful to watch. Plus, damnit, we need all the female superheroes we can get!

Dr. Strange trains with the Ancient One, getting further guidance from Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fellow follower, learning to cast spells, open doorways in space, and throw a mean punch. These lessons lead the characters into psychedelic realities that look like a cross between an Escher painting, a kaleidoscope, and Inception. These moments are fun and colorful, at first. But once the trio has to fight bad guy Kaecilius, (Mads Mikkelsen), the ever rotating and expanding landscapes get a little exhausting. (I will admit the murky 3-D I was forced to watch the movie in did it no favors.)

When Doctor Strange works, it's for the same reasons most of the Marvel movies do: They aren't afraid of humor, and they know what's funny. Cumberbatch's dry delivery, some slapstick involving the Cloak of Levitation, and a funny bit about a wifi password had me laughing more than anything in Suicide Squad and B Vs S combined.

But it also suffers from the same big problem so many of these superhero movies suffer from: too many villains, and villains that are just too big. Kaecilius alone would be enough, but by the end, with the introduction of an even bigger bad, the destruction of the entire universe is at stake. How Dr. Strange deals with the situation, while supposedly a very bad thing to do, doesn't seem to have any negative consequences, and leaves you wondering, well, if he can just do that, why would we ever need any superheroes saving us from anything ever again?

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