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MOVIES: Doctor Strange - Review

After a casual namedrop during Captain America: The Winter Solider, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally pulling back the curtain and introducing another key player to moviegoing audiences with the arrival of Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the world-renowned neurosurgeon, whose perfect surgical record has left him with an apartment overlooking the New York skyline, a collection of sports cars and a level of arrogance that would surprise even Tony Stark himself.

En route to a speaking engagement, Strange and one of the aforementioned overcompensation machines plummet over the side of a cliff, sending the good doctor to the hospital for a series of reconstructive surgeries meant to restore the use of his mangled hands. But the nerve damage is permanent, bringing Strange's career to a screeching halt and turning him into an even more insufferable prick, the kind who angrily lashes out and berates colleague and former lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) for the crime of bringing him dinner. Unlike Stark, whose devotion to his own ego is funny enough to be endearing, Strange spends most of the first act being terribly unlikable - which isn't exactly the sort of quality you want from a hero.

Luckily, things improve when Strange's quest for more unorthodox forms of treatment leads him to an enclave in Kathmandu (yes, like the Bob Seger song), and a group of spiritualists devoted to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sort of warrior monk who informs him quite candidly that she can "reorient the spirit to better heal the body." To call Strange skeptical would be a gross understatement, but it doesn't take long for him to realize that she's not bluffing - in fact, that's the least of her abilities, which also include warping time and space, conjuring energy shields out of thin air, and projecting her astral form out of her body.

Yes, Doctor Strange is steeped heavily in metaphysics and the mystic arts, which manifest in some of the most wildly inventive action sequences ever committed to film. A particular highlight comes near the end of the second act, as Strange and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) flee through the streets of New York City, pursued by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One whose mastery of a forbidden ritual allows him to alter the very nature of reality. Skyscrapers collapse in on themselves, city streets morph into a series of twisted hexagonal mazes, and the world itself becomes a weapon - it's like staring at an M.C. Esher creation through the world's largest kaleidoscope.

Director Scott Derrickson is clearly taking a few cues from Inception, but the sheer level of creativity in the way he chooses to apply those concepts results in a far more impressive accomplishment - at least on a visual scale. Like many superhero origin stories, Doctor Strange's biggest problems come from its storytelling, with a script that's front-loaded with exposition and a second half that feels like the most basic excuse to move us from one extravagant action sequence to another. Marvel obviously has big plans for Strange in the near future - as evidenced by the mid-credits "stinger" that heralds the good doctor's return - but it would have been nice to see a bit more character development for his inaugural outing.

Overall, Doctor Strange falls somewhere in the middle of the MCU lexicon. It's certainly not a masterpiece on par with Winter Soldier or the original Iron Man, but it's also far from the trainwreck it could have been, and I can think of several Marvel offerings that I enjoyed significantly less than this one. Cumberbatch is a solid choice for the role, and he gets plenty of help from a strong supporting cast, including Benedict Wong's humorless librarian and Swinton's scene-stealing performance in a role that caused a fair bit of controversy when she landed the part. Derrickson's approach to action, not to mention the very nature of Strange's abilities, should offer the studio an interesting new sandbox to play in as they continue expanding their universe, and I'm looking forward to seeing precisely what sort of impact Doctor Strange will have in the future.

About the Author - Brent Hankins
Brent Hankins is a film critic and blogger with 5 years of experience. He is a charter member of the Phoenix Critics Circle, the founder of NerdRepository.com, and host of the Drinks and Discourse podcast.
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