dr-strange-movie-review

What does it mean to be truly transcendent?

Doctor Strange, Marvel’s latest entry in its seemingly limitless cinematic universe, opens in wide release Friday. This time, it’s horror director Scott Derrickson’s first foray into the comic book world directing new Marvel star Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular physician.

Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon known for taking on seemingly impossible cases and research purely for publicity. He’s as sarcastic as he is arrogant and treats those around him, including quasi-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), with an air of derision.

Following a traumatic car accident, Strange is left with severe nerve damage in his hands, preventing him from performing his work anymore. With his entire identity tied up in his practice, Strange exhausts all of his resources and funds on a variety of experimental techniques to no avail, alienating everybody he knows in the process.

At his wit’s end, Strange tracks down a formerly paralyzed man (Benjamin Bratt) who regained his ability to walk. He tells Strange of a place called Kamar-Taj where he previously traveled and was able to heal his body in a way that medicine cannot.

Fascinated, Strange spends the rest of his money and travels to Nepal in search of Kamar-Taj. He’s taken in by Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who introduces him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mysterious figure who reveals herself to be the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth. While Strange thought he was traveling somewhere for a medical remedy, he soon learns he’s actually being drawn into an otherworldly battle that transcends the material world we know.

Doctor Strange is a film about transcendence. How do you transcend what you thought your life to be? How do you transcend space and time? How do you transcend what you thought to be true? It also transcends something else – the ability to be evaluated.

At this point, Marvel films are functioning with very little downside. Particularly these origin stories, the studio has gotten so good at a basic rubric of how an ordinary person becomes extraordinary and then saves the world all in a tight two hours. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the studio doesn’t want to do anything differently or innovative, they just want to repeat a winning formula in order to expand their universe and all that comes with that.

Strange fits into that formula perfectly. It introduces a new set of characters, a new set of stakes and demonstrates how they exist within the greater Marvel Universe. The one positive point that it does have over some recent origin stories is that it does set out to create a self-contained film. This isn’t a movie overtly concerned with setting up its sequel or four other related films. Doctor Strange does tell a standalone story and does it as well as many of the fan favorites that have preceded it.

Cumberbatch (sans accent) is just the right amount of hateable/likeable as Doctor Strange. He verges slightly into the territory already trod by Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man but with more intellect and less bombast. There’s not much to say about the rest of the characters as they’re pretty one-dimensional. Of course there’s the controversy surrounding Swinton’s casting, and she isn’t particularly worth the controversy.

There certainly isn’t anything wrong with this film, and that’s almost what’s wrong with it. Marvel has gotten its formula down so well that it’s unable to do anything truly original or daring, but maybe it doesn’t need to anymore.

It’s transcended traditional filmmaking.