Marvel’s latest treads old ground in strange ways


Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Doctor Strange
Now playing, wide

After conquering the world and guarding the galaxy, it’s time for Marvel to get mystical. The most obvious way to enter the most otherworldly of planes is through Doctor Strange, the only character from Marvel’s cosmic stories to break into the popular subconscious (with the possible exception of Ghost Rider, who’s getting a run on this season’s  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

At first sight, Doctor Strange appears to be a risky bet for Marvel. The film is loaded with comic book arcana and introduces – quite literally –  a whole new universe, with its own rules and characters. Furthermore, Strange has few ties to the world of the Avengers, give or take an Infinity Stone. .

With its psychedelic visuals and a little-known character, Doctor Strange may seem risky but Marvel has hedged its bets. Strange follows the Marvel formula to a tee: boy meets ego, boy loses ego but gains superpowers, boy saves world. Even Strange’s appearance, with his carefully tonsured facial hair, is meant to recall Tony Stark’s goatee. And for safety’s sake, nearly every plot point but one has been leaked to the public. There are so few surprises in the plot of Doctor Strange that it feels like a rerun.

Given the considerable amount of plot to cover in a little less than two hours, the film unfolds fast and furious. The eponymous physician (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing his overconfident, insouciant thing) is an accomplished successful neurosurgeon until a car accident stops him on his tracks. Strange loses use of his hands (as we are reminded every five minutes) and becomes obsessed with finding a cure.

His quest leads him to Kamar-Taj, a tastefully tucked-away mystical dojo in Kathmandu where a multiracial group of monks read from old books and casually draw crackling mandalas in the air. Under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, the movie’s MVP), Strange learns about  parallel dimensions and how to travel between them. He also gets wind of unseen, colossal threats, kept at bay by The Ancient One and her students.

Unfortunately for the doctor, a former Kamar-Taj resident, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has been seduced by the Dark Side Dimension and now spends his time attempting to overthrow The Ancient One and vandalize the library. Outmanned, unready and ill-equipped, Strange is forced way outside his comfort zone. Luckily for the known universe, he’s a quick study.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil) finds himself at home in the Marvel universe. His horror genre sensibilities are nowhere to be found, but Derrickson has a strong visual sense that overpowers the story’s shortcomings. The special effects are eye-popping but also organic to the story. The notion of a “mirror dimension” is executed with remarkable self-assuredness, even though it’s a hard sci-fi concept to assimilate. Moreover, Doctor Strange features the most psychedelic sequence ever seen in a would-be blockbuster.

Another smart move by Derrickson is the casting: Cumberbatch is a solid choice, but the supporting cast is even more impressive is the supporting cast. Mikkelsen brings brings psychological depth and presence to yet another underwritten Marvel villain; ; Michael Stuhlbarg gets two or three measly scenes as comic relief and makes an impression. The group is so capable that they all give the impression of being underused.

Not every concept introduced is properly developed and the denouement hurts because of it. Despite its formulaic approach to storytelling, Doctor Strange blows the Marvel Cinematic Universe wide open. Buy a ticket, or just teleport directly to the theatre.