Film / Reviews

'Doctor Strange': When seeing is not always believing

by Kaori Shoji

In case you’re wondering if the entire superhero film genre is being monopolized by Marvel, it is my regrettable duty to tell you that it does look that way. There are no superhero free agents out there anymore, and if a lone wolf should be found lurking on a street corner, a Marvel representative will surely appear with a briefcase to offer a deal, a cape and a back story of a traumatic childhood or other circumstances to explain the triggering of mysterious powers.

But it’s not all that bad, after all Marvel has produced some of America’s best superhero comics and “Doctor Strange,” the newest addition to its clan of movies, looks and feels markedly different from the rest. For one thing, the titular hero is played by an uppercrust Briton sporting a weird American accent.

Dr. Strange makes no attempt to hide an overly inflated ego and colossal self-regard. Who else to play such a man than Benedict Cumberbatch, whose career has been built on portraying supremely confident egomaniacs of the Western world? Here, Cumberbatch abandons his curly locks and London man-about-town ambience for graying temples and American mannerisms, and though not prone to wisecracking like his fellow Marvelians, he’s thoroughly entertaining. Inevitably he dons the cape and morphs into an action demi-god like everyone else, but there’s a certain unshakeable, ironclad dignity about Cumberbatch that’s missing from Robert Downey Jr. and Co.

Doctor Strange
Rating
Run Time 115 mins
Language English
Opens JAN. 27

Co-written and directed by Scott Derrickson, “Doctor Strange” feels as fresh and hopeful as a pair of running shoes optimistically purchased in December as part of a New Year’s fitness resolution. Sure, by February these could be pushed to the back of the closet, but it’s that first joyous moment of slipping them on that counts. So it is with this movie.

The movie’s mantra, “Forget everything you know,” as a sorcerer named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) frequently intones, is designed to hypnotize the viewer into thinking this is a whole new experience. And it is, to a certain point. A sense of deja vu does eventually creep in, but until then, what a ride.

Here’s the storyboard. Dr. Stephen Strange is a neurosurgeon in New York, unparalleled in his skill to fix just about any brain ailment. This is a guy with has no outstanding back story or emotional baggage, primarily because he’s the center of his own well-ordered universe. Who needs a past or relationships when being unique is all that matters?

But then the doctor has an accident while driving his Lamborghini and he wakes up in the hospital with permanent nerve damage in his hands. His brilliant career comes to a sudden halt and he becomes an emotional wreck despite the TLC offered by colleague and occasional love interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).

Desperate to get his old life back, and hearing of a mystical cure that exists in Nepal, Strange travels to Kathmandu. Looking every inch the desiccated British Empire colonialist, he wanders the streets and is promptly mugged by local thugs. Mordo, however, spots him and takes him to Kamar-Taj, a temple in the Himalayas that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Jade Palace in “Kung Fu Panda.”

Kamar-Taj is the domain of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer who introduces Strange to the concept of differing realities existing in the same timeline — and how he can navigate them. She tells him to shed his ego and to train as a protector of the universe. Basically: Get over it and get on with it.

Though pouty at first, Strange comes around once he learns that traveling through “gates” to different destinations (mainly London, Hong Kong and Greenwich Village, New York) at will is quite cool, as is being a superhero and battling it out with Kamar-Taj dissident Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who, predictably, is trying to take over the world.

Dr. Palmer reenters the picture during crucial scenes when Strange needs assistance, but otherwise the talents of McAdams are, unfortunately, pretty much wasted on making Cumberbatch look good (as if he needed help in this field).

OK, so “Doctor Strange” is not as soulful as expected. But in this particular reality, I’ll take what I can get.

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