Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

It's film #14 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the second movie from Phase III. If you are a fan of these superhero movies like I am, it's a great time to be alive as we certainly aren't slowing down. If you are sick of superhero movies, well, no one's forcing you to watch any of them, so I don't really feel bad for you. But they certainly aren't stopping any time soon. In fact, for the first time ever, next year will see three movies from the MCU in one year with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnorak. Add to that we have DC and Fox trying to keep up with Marvel. I'd add Sony to that, too, but they kinda gave in and decided to join Marvel with their Spider-Man franchise. Plus you have everyone going strong on TV. So yeah, it's a great time to be a fan of comic books. And no, I'm not one to blindly praise Marvel while always hating on DC. I was one of few that enjoyed Suicide Squad and I'm stoked for Wonder Woman next year. It's just that Marvel is doing so good right now that they almost can't do any wrong and I'm happy to report that this has continued with Doctor Strange. In fact, I will boldly claim that this is one of Marvel's best and easily the best superhero movie of the year (better than Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool).

Marvel also impressively dives yet again into the obscure to give us something great. It's like they are planning their schedule on a dare with Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and now Doctor Strange being some of their recent titles while making sure to still keep their big franchises going strong. Thus they continue to beautifully build this fantastic universe without letting any of us get bored. If you don't know anything about Doctor Strange, in the comics he is know as the Sorcerer Supreme, protector of the Earth from mystical and magical threats. This is his origin story, telling us how he gets to that point. Played in the movie by Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon with a photographic memory. Yet he's also very arrogant and prideful. In other words, the role Cumberbatch was born to play because he's perfect at playing these arrogant geniuses. Not to mention Doctor Strange even looks like Benedict Cumberbatch in the comics, so it was a match made in heaven. Anyways, Stephen Strange gets in a car accident where he essentially loses the use of his hands with all the nerve damage and he goes on a journey to try to fix that and ends up running into a society that does things beyond his wildest imagination.

If you've kept up with my comic book movie reviews, you'll know that I can get picky with origin stories. There's something I call origin-story-itis. And it's something that's hard to avoid. Instead of diving right into the meat of the story, you have to spend a lot of time setting up the world and introducing the character. Not only does this sometimes get a bit rote because most superhero origin stories are very similar, it also holds the movie back you can't dive into the meat of the action quite yet and you also can't waste your best villain in the first movie, so usually you start with a throwaway villain while saving the best for later. It's for these reasons that I was a little more harsh on Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool. Still good movies that I love, but I don't rank either quite as high as others, yet in both cases I think the sequel is going to be better because we have that origin story out of the way. Ant-Man managed to cleverly dodge the origin story by being a passing of the torch story and Marvel smartly introduced Spider-Man and Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War so their future movies don't have to focus so much on the origin story. But in the case of Doctor Strange, the origin story needed to happen. Yet I was impressed by how great they did with it.

In terms of a comparison to another superhero origin story, I personally think the best comparison for Doctor Strange is Batman Begins. That's definitely a huge compliment because Batman Begins is an origin story done right. Yes, they needed to take their time in setting up Batman and no, they couldn't use the Joker right away, but that movie did a great job of keeping your attention throughout the whole movie by not feeling old. Sure, that movie came out before the ginormous rush of superhero movies that Marvel started with their Avengers initiative, but Batman Begins is a movie I go back to quite frequently and it certainly holds up as a fantastic origin story. Much like Bruce Wayne, Stephen Strange is an arrogant rich man. Also like Bruce Wayne, Stephen Strange travels to a foreign part of the world to be trained. With Bruce Wayne it's ninjas. With Stephen Strange is sorcerers. But similar setup and similar facilities. The parallels with R'as al Ghul and the League of Assassins to the drama that unfolds in Doctor Strange are also similar, but I won't dive into that. Benedict Cumberbatch and Christian Bale even have the same gruff, messy look for part of the movie. Also just like Batman Begins, I was fully invested in the development and training of Stephen Strange.

Sure, there's a lot of exposition in the movie and we don't dive into the action right away, but in my view there was a necessary learning curve here. We're not just setting up another hero to fight with the Avengers, we're setting up a whole new dimension and a whole new universe. Instead of throwing it at us all at once and causing us all to get lost and confused with all the terminology and rules, the movie slowly builds this universe, allowing for a learning curve with the audience. We're like Stephen Strange. We didn't know this universe exists and we don't know how it works. As he slowly learns how everything works, we learn right along with him at the appropriate pace. This is a very trippy, crazy universe and in teaching us how everything works, the movie doesn't go to fast, causing us to get lost, yet it doesn't go too slow, causing us to get bored. It's just right. We get a tease with the opening scene. Then we go on the journey with Stephen Strange. Then we are taught how everything works and we learn the terminology as well as the characters involved. Then by the time the second half of the movie comes around, we are ready to dive right in and enjoy the heck out of the movie with all the knowledge we have gained. And man does this leads to a crazy fun ride.

Thus that sets up my next movie comparison. Inception. No, this is not deep and thought-provoking like Inception. I'm talking about the world-bending visuals. In Inception, they were able to do whatever they wanted to their world because they were in dream land. With Doctor Strange, they are able to do what they want because of magic. But the end result is pretty much the same. Except with Doctor Strange it takes all the crazy world-bending stuff to a whole new level and thus it's like Inception on steroids. Once we've successfully established the ground rules and terminology, they completely unleash this fantastic world on us without holding back. And the rest of the world doesn't see what's going on when they bend the world around, so it's just sorcerers vs. sorcerers in this dimension that is a completely invisible to the rest of the world. I can't stress enough how much fun I had with all of this magic and sorcery. It was a blast! And it certainly brought something fresh and unique to the genre. Yes, I love all my superhero movies, but the novelty of it all has worn off, so if you don't come up with something new and different, you're not going to be quite as good. This is definitely new and different here and it promised a lot of awesome stuff for the future.

Before I wrap this up, I do want to touch briefly on a few other things without diving too deep as to avoid spoilers. First off, the whole cast as fantastic. Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing as Stephen Strange. It was a role he was born to play. And he does a great American accent. And I loved his character arc throughout the movie. Also great were the supporting cast that included Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, and Mads Mikkelsen. As far as the Tilda Swinton controversy, sure it would've been better to have an Asian actor play the role of the Ancient One, but Swinton kills it in that role, so I'm not hungover that point. If you are, I think you're being a little too politically correct, especially since the Ancient One is officially a title. Also if you don't know about Chiwetel's character of Mordo, I won't say anything. But he's fantastic. And Mads Mikkelsen's villain was an above-average Marvel villain. That's one area where Marvel struggles quite a bit, and while this one isn't great, I thought he was just fine. And the movie is funny! At the right moments. I mean, you learn to expect that from a Marvel movie. That's a part of their successful formula. But this was a lot funnier that I thought it was going to be and that didn't mess with the tone at all.

Overall, if you are a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you are going to go see this movie. I don't need to try to convince you to do so. If you are not a fan of superhero movies, well I don't know what to tell you because I don't relate with that. But this does feel fresh and unique, as we're playing around with magic for the first time in the MCU, so maybe it's worth giving a chance because of that unique element? If you are a casual fan of superhero movies, perhaps you enjoy them but you don't rush to see them on opening weekends, then this is one you need to put on your must-see list, because I thought this was absolutely phenomenal. We successfully built up this universe, following the formula of Batman Begins and then we explode into a trippy visual experience that's like Inception on steroids. Inception meets Batman Begins is a pretty dang good combination, especially sprinkled with the magical Marvel touch. This is an origin story that I wasn't bored of, yet it brings promise of even better things to come. This is honestly a top-tier Marvel movie. Phase III is off to a very strong start with this and Civil War and the current schedule only looks even more exciting. I was tempted to go super high with my score, but I decided that a fair score for now is a strong 9/10.

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