Doctor Strange (Disney, PG-13)

There’s a superhero blockbuster, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe no less, for people who usually hate superhero films. That would be Doctor Strange.


It’s fashionable to complain about how superhero blockbusters are taking over the American film industry, and if your interest in confined to the highest-grossing films of a given recent year, you have a point—although G-rated animation gives Captain America and his pals a run for their money. My response in the past has been that, from the standpoint of a filmgoer, you have more films than ever, of greater variety to choose from, and nobody’s forcing you to follow the crowd to the multiplex. But now I have an even better response—there’s a superhero blockbuster, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe no less, for people who usually hate superhero films.

That would be Doctor Strange, a different kind of superhero film. When we first meet Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he’s a famous surgeon who is quite aware of his superiority. You know how the old joke goes:

Q: What’s the difference between a surgeon and God?

A: God knows that he’s not a surgeon.

Strange has a bad case of that times 10 and is so wrapped up in himself he doesn’t realize how he comes off to others. Take his co-worker, E.R. doc Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams)—they used to be an item, but as she informs him, his definition of “us” was mostly “me,” and she declines to waste any further time on him. Then his world comes apart, thanks to a serious car crash caused by Strange’s distracted driving. He survives, but his hands are a mess, and doing surgery is pretty much out of the question.

The arrogant surgeon then shows his big baby side, sulking and complaining until he learns of the possibility of a miraculous cure in Nepal. So off he goes, eventually gaining admittance to the compound of Kamar-Taj, residence of the sorcerer known as Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). Strange becomes a student of the Ancient One, and once he starts to get over himself, he proves a natural in the mystical arts. That’s a good thing because his services are required in the fight against a former student gone over to the dark side, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, sporting some very creepy eye makeup).

You’ve probably noticed already that none of the lead actors are Americans—instead they’re Brits (Cumberbatch, Swinton, Wong, Ejiofor) plus a Dane (Mikkelsen) and a Canadian (McAdams). You’ve probably noticed that one of the leads, plus the most important supporting role, are both played by women, and two of the leads (and they are real characters, not one-stunt ponies) are not Caucasian. Plus, the superpower that Strange acquires, magic, is one he has to work for—no radioactive spider bites or magic serums here—and it doesn’t start to happen until he is willing to empty his cup, as they say in the martial arts, and start from the beginning.

Doctor Strange is an amazingly beautiful movie, far surpassing anything we’ve previously seen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The special effects are amazing (particularly on a big screen and in 3D, which is how I saw this film), and the whole film has a sort of psychedelic sensibility that goes back to the original 1960s Doctor Strange comics drawn by Steve Ditko. The influence of M.C. Escher is also obvious, as we see the normal world bending into impossible geometries under the influence of the dueling sorcerers.

According to a tweet from the director, Scott Derrickson, Doctor’s Strange’s PG-13 rating is for “Kaleidoscopic galactic intensity and other-dimensional psychotropic violence” which is a pretty good description of the film. There’s violence, but not of the typical fist fight and bullet shots variety. There’s also intensity on a large scale, and the film is crazy and absorbing without being gratuitously overwhelming. Most crucially, it maintains a sense of proportion between the screen time granted to action sequences and that spent on things like character development and creating a sense of place (New York and Nepal are the primary locations, with a little Hong Kong thrown in as well). Even Stan Lee’s cameo serves a purpose—he’s riding public transportation, which is what even the rich and famous do in New York when they want to get somewhere. | Sarah Boslaugh

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