Marvel's latest origin film stars the unstoppable Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange, a highly skilled, highly sought-after, highly rich and highly pompous neurosurgeon. On top of his game and on top of the world, Strange's great life is obliterated in a single devastating moment. And while on a desperate journey to find healing, he finds so much more when he finds a mystic known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who expands his worldview -- and simultaneously the MCU -- into the vast realm of magic.
|And I do mean vast.|
Marvel it may be, but Marvel it certainly doesn't feel. Doctor Strange take a giant leap into the unexplored, leaving behind practically everything we know about the universe. It's very much its own movie; just as much as, say, Iron Man was, only Iron Man had the advantage of no canon to dictate to it. Strange is in such a different place from other Marvel flicks that it was free to do new things and set up its own world, and it takes great advantage of that.
There are three very small references that tie it to the preceding Marvel films, and besides that, my brain was having a hard time accepting it as being from Marvel at all. And I still like Marvel-y Marvel films, but it's great to know that the box can -- and has been -- broken out of. It's only the similar on a very base level in the story; the skeleton of a superhero origin. How it builds on that is, appropriately, all by its own rules.
|Ugh, this photo! I never thought I would fall in love with Marvel cinematography in this way...|
The first thing I noticed about it was the tone. And not that it's actually darker than other serious superheroes, but at the same time, it is. Literally. The color palette is dark, brown and muted with highlights of neon. The lighting is beautiful and minimal, with lots of silhouetting and scenes that seem barely lit at all, but are done expertly, to create and enhance an edgy darkness. Unexpectedly, handheld cameras are often used, which lends the film some earthy grit; a great counterbalance for the trippy, spacey psychedelics that pop up. The contrast of the shiny, crisp and sparkling magic with the deeply sturdy and grounded feel of the physical world is excellent. I applaud the filmmakers for going in that direction.
Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson is known for horror films, and while there's nothing very scary about Doctor Strange, the style translates very well. (That also accounts for an incredibly decent jump scare in the movie!) Writing is the one place where I wished for more. It's really not a negative because I know there will be more later in sequel films, but for now, the world isn't as explored as it should be. It's not overloaded, which is great, but I did feel slightly pandered to occasionally. I could have handled more, but the film needed to be accessible to even casual fans, and I think it hit the optimal middle ground. And I firmly believe that the film will improve in retrospect, once even more development is added to the characters and their worlds.
|Fine actor makes for excellent character!|
Segue: Characters! To be perfectly candid, I expected to not really care for Benedict Cumberbatch and his character in this film. Not that I don't like him or think him a bad actor, I had just seen too much of him recently. And I was feeling cynical and thinking he was probably only cast in the part because he looked like the character and was the hot new thing who everyone wants in their movie. But no -- he was excellently cast, and gives a practically mesmerizing performance as Stephen. There's lots of drama to handle, and he never takes it too far over the top where we viewers are unwilling to follow. The character arc is handled expertly; at first he's very reminiscent of Sherlock, which wasn't a great start for me with my cynicism, but that only made his elegant transition into zen and gentlemanly hero even more impressive. Also, he is a master at making his hands shake!
|Basically, I liked her because of the two character's relationship.|
Rachel McAdams as Christine, his ex and fellow doctor... I'm just not a fan of McAdams, so I can't help but think that almost anyone could have played the part, but she didn't annoy me nearly as bad as she has in other movies. I enjoy her more when she plays dislikeable characters, and Christine splits the line. She's complicated and her role as romantic interest stands on shaky ground, which is interesting. What won me over was the inscription on the watch she gave Stephen, and how much he values it.
Chiwetel Ejiofor. We all know he's great, but I admit I didn't know what his purpose was for a while, plot-wise. I liked his character, but wondered where he was headed. In the moment, it seemed like a negative, but his arc does complete to perfect satisfaction, so that everything about him makes sense. Now I'm eagerly anticipating more from him. On that note, the one thing I think maybe should have been done differently: the end credit scene was important to the closure of his arc -- too important, I think, to be left as the end-credit scene. Though I don't know where it should have gone... just know that I strongly recommend sticking around for it!
|Great stuff from these two.|
Tilda Swinton I enjoyed immensely! She held my attention so well, and was so fully immersed in her role -- a unique, thought-provoking, and moving character. She was a pleasure. Ejiofor's fellow cast mate from The Martian, Benedict Wong, was there, mostly for comic relief, and handled it splendidly. Mads Mikkelsen as the villain is perhaps slightly on the forgettable side -- another in a long line -- but it was appropriate that he just serve his purpose and then disappear; his villainy came before Stephen entered the life, and the story is told from Stephen's eyes. And Mikkelsen's performance was good and convincing. It worked.
|The vagueness and mystery worked for him.|
Like with the colors (dark, highlighted with neon) and the tone, (earthy, highlighted with dazzling psychedelics) this movie's comedy is an occasional extreme highlight; it's silly. And this is something that I honestly don't know what to think about. On one hand, it's a little jarring when the movie is so beautiful and muted and serious, and then all of a sudden has cute comic relief out from left field. On the other, it's not like it was shoehorned in; the story almost required it in some places. And it was genuinely funny. Sometimes a joke would come across so awkwardly, but then another layer would be added that made it funny again. There was also a little subtle humor that I appreciated more initially.
Maybe it's not a hundred percent my cup of tea, but I do think it works. It's odd -- it's Strange! -- but it's right. I may vaguely wonder if the goofy comedy was a self-conscious apology for making such a wacky story take itself so seriously, but deep down I think I understand that if the story had taken itself seriously without those highlights, I wouldn't have been able to be as invested in the seriousness. Instead, every time the silliness pulled me out of the movie's depths, I was even more eager to plunge back in. And it helped me to accept the inherent silliness in the plot. Like the scene on the balcony of the hospital, which was such a beautiful, beautiful scene -- visually and emotionally -- but there was a silliness to it too -- a silliness that by that point I had fully embraced.
|This is just crazy.|
Two more things that just impressed the stuffing right out of me: (this paragraph gets a little spoilery!) In the climax, I was absolutely flabbergasted and amazed to find that it rode on smarts instead of action! Almost unheard of for Marvel movie, but there you have it. And even more unheard of, collateral damage? Destruction? Zero. Zero! There was no destruction in the end. But it was just as involving -- if not more -- as any superhero flick with destruction. I loved that. I am so impressed and happy at that clever change-up. (End Spoilers)
I started out this review thinking this film was excellent -- technically exceptional, and practically flawless, and not quite my kind of movie. It made me laugh, it made me think, it made me grin gleefully at the screen and feel the heartbreak of its characters alike, but I was sure I wouldn't fall in love with it until after a sequel, like it has been with so many other Marvel films. But, as I wrote about the few flaws they morphed into praiseworthy aspects, and as I wrote about all the little moments I expected to someday treasure, I found myself treasuring them already.
|And eager for more magic from Marvel!|
This was not a story that I was determined to love because of a certain character or actor or story line that I was biased towards. Doctor Strange is wholly new, and I knew it would need time. It snuck up on me, with its subtly welcoming heart, cool beauty, and jarring highlights of total craziness, and has since sunk right into my heart. I was going to quote the movie and say "Doctor Strange, 'time will tell how much I love you,'" but... it already has.