Laced with a psychedelic splendor only an addict would crave, Marvel’s newest feature imbues mind-numbing effects with a conventional origin story to create something different.
The “Dr. Strange” screens sputter through neon highlights of purple, orange and yellow, colors more habitable in a late-night party than a movie theatre screen. While the movie is more extravagant in its thinking than previous Marvel entries, what catches the eye is a spectacle that can be somewhat dimming to the mind, even as the brain is burned with CGI torches.
“Dr. Strange” comes at a convenient time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, right off the heels of the successful “Captain America: Civil War,” and right before next year’s anticipated “Thor: Ragnarök.”
As ideal a time as any for an origin story, the movie focuses on neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a highly accomplished and egotistical man who has the superpower of healing even before he ventures into the mystical arts. Saving the lives of his patients comes as a silver medal to Strange, who views his successes in the medical field as a celebrity would their mansion and car collection.
Broken down by the loss of his hands in a car accident, Strange is plummeted into humility as his life begins to crumble around him. Western medicine and exploratory procedures do little to heal his constantly-shaking fingers, causing Strange to turn to Nepal and the promise of a more mystical healing. There he comes into contact with The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a centuries-old master of spiritual manipulation and chakras who once healed a man’s ruptured spine and subsequent paralysis.
Taking inspiration from several Eastern religions, predominately Buddhism and Hinduism, the movie introduces more mystical aspects that the writers stubbornly avoid referring to as “magic.” Magic, however, is the best word to explain the ghost-like astral form and the several different dimensions that the characters travel into.
These different dimensions allow for some of the most impressive, if vertigo-inducing, action sequences in movies to date. Taking influence from films like “Inception” and “The Matrix,” which used their alternate realities to bend space and time in a physical sense, “Dr. Strange” follows the same curriculum of folding streets and entire city structures. On these, the characters fight each other, throwing the concept of gravity and the human equilibrium into a vortex of glass and concrete.
In many ways, the special effects are grand, sometimes too grand for the screen. The way the screen frames certain scenes lends well to the mechanical chaos these sorcerers wreak on their playing fields. For how gigantic a theatre screen is, the effects consume every pixel and inch of life the frame gives, making some scenes too busy or dizzying to be fully appreciated.
A true saving grace for the movie is the perfectly-cast Cumberbatch, known more for his take on Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series “Sherlock” than anything else. His transition to an American accent is a bit jarring, especially for those more accustomed to the menacing baritone he usually speaks with, but Cumberbatch layers Strange with all the necessary emotional and humane beats to make an egotistical man likable.
Strange undergoes the typical Marvel character arc, changing from self-centered to open minded of others by the end, but without Cumberbatch it would be more of the same cliché than something fresh. Throughout the film, Strange is welcomed into the wonders of several different planes of existence, and it is the actor who allows us to vicariously experience the same shock and awe such revelations bring on.
The rest of the cast plays perfectly, with “Dr. Strange” offering one of the better ensemble casts of any Marvel film. Tilda Swinton plays the stoic and all-knowing master with grace. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a student of hers, whom Marvel fans know from
Dr. Strange bends the mindhis comic-book origins, but here his arc seems clunky and misshaped by the events of the film.
As with many Marvel films, the villain falters beneath the weight of the hero’s story. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (of the Hannibal television series) plays Strange’s adversary with as much menace as the script deems acceptable. It’s unfortunate, then, that such an actor is given little to sink his teeth into, since Mikkelsen has shown his ability to play the charismatic and calculating villain in Hannibal and Casino Royale.
While not one of the best films Marvel has given us, “Dr. Strange” offers enough new and mind-bending details to be called fresh. The formula is stale enough, though, to be predictable; slap a new cape and villain into a film and repeat. But here there’s enough distraction to make the old seem enjoyable.
Marvel may one day incite the wrath of those bored by convention, but films like this seem to stem that growing tide just enough.
With all the strange things happening here, though, maybe the film is only conventional in some other, mirrored dimension.