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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

DAMN Good Movies -- DOCTOR STRANGE


That's right, I'm back once again with another movie take, this time on the movie Doctor Strange, based on the classic Marvel Comics mystical superhero.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...welcome to the Sanctum Sanctorum...

As some of you know, It's been a long road to see Doctor Strange on the big screen.  The project first came to life in 1986, with a script by Back to the Future's Bob Gale that went nowhere.  Another script by Alex Cox and Doctor Strange co-creator Stan Lee turned up in 1989, which also went nowhere.  In 1992, Wes Craven became involved to write and direct and (Surprise!) that also went nowhere.  More disheartening attempts followed in 1995 (David S. Goyer), 1997 (Jeff Welch), 2000 (Michael France), 2001 (Goyer again), and 2010 (Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer).

In 2013, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed that Doctor Strange would finally happen as part of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Scott Derrickson was tapped as director, while the title role almost went to Tom Hardy, Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, and Ryan Gosling, until Marvel wisely decided to change the film's production schedule to accommodate Benedict Cumberbatch, the guy they actually wanted in the first place.

The film opens in Kathmandu, Nepal, with the Slytherin sorcerer Kaecilius and his henchzealots breaking into a compound called Kamar-Taj to steal a ritual from a book belonging to the Ancient One, another sorcerer who is (Surprise!) ancient but was dumb enough to train Kaecilius in the mystic arts.  There's a brief confrontation between the two, but Kaecilius gets away with the pages he wanted because obviously.

From there, we're introduced to Dr. Stephen Strange, acclaimed neurosurgeon and arrogant Tony Stark substitute.  As the smartest man in the room, Strange believes he's infallible and on top of the world, making his inevitable fall that much harder when he lands.  In the most successful "Don't drive and text" ad ever, Strange flips his expensive ride over a hillside, which costs him the use of his skilled surgeon's hands.  Strange, desperate for a treatment that will restore the only thing that gives his life meaning, burns through all his financial resources and makes one last attempt by checking out a lead in, you guessed it, Kamar-Taj. After Strange has a cup of tea (with honey) with the Ancient One, the replacement librarian Wong, and his future arch-enemy another sorcerer named Karl Mordo, we're finally off to the races.

The Ancient One shows Strange her power by shoving him right out of his body onto the astral plane and sending him rocketing through all kinds of dimensions and realities.  The tricksy special effects used from this point on are some of the most disorienting and insane visuals I've seen on film, channeling the classic otherworldly artwork of Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko one moment, then turning the building effects in Inception up to eleven the next.  If Doctor Strange doesn't land at least an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, it's all the dreaded Dormammu's fault.

While I'm on the subject of ol' Dormie, it turns out Kaecilius' big plan (remember that stolen ritual from three paragraphs ago?) is to use the stolen pages to summon the mega-powerful Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, where time doesn't exist and everyone can live forever. The downside, of course, is that Earth will be under Dormammu's control, which may make things a little awkward at your really big family reunion.  As it happens, three buildings called Sanctums protect Earth from threats like Dormammu, but Kaecilius and the henchzealots take out the London Sanctum, and are about to do the same to the New York Sanctum until Doctor Strange shows up and holds them off until the Ancient One and Mordo arrive.

We head into the film's Third Act with the Ancient One taken off the board in a sequence to briefly reunite Strange with Christine Palmer, his former lover, before sending him to Hong Kong.  There, Strange finds Wong dead and the Hong Kong Sanctum destroyed, but thanks to the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey Eye of Agamotto, it ain't nothin' but a thang.  The final showdown between Doctor Strange and Dormammu essentially becomes a Groundhog Day reset, with Strange creating a really annoying time loop trap that forces Dormammu to leave Earth and take Kaecilius and his pesky henchzealots with him.  At this point, to quote Bill Murray at the end of Ghostbusters, it's Miller Time.

The film ends with yet another tease for Avengers: Infinity War, then teases Thor: Ragnarok and a Doctor Strange sequel for good measure.  So needless to say, you haven't seen the last of the good doctor, especially with Robert Downey, Jr. not long for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  After all, someone has to keep the facial hair status quo...

Okay, some random thoughts about the various Doctor Strange characters:

DOCTOR STRANGE/STEPHEN STRANGE -- To the surprise of no one, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange is perfect casting.  After years of playing guys like Sherlock Holmes and Khan Noonien Singh, Cumberbatch has the whole "smartest guy in the room" act down cold, albeit here with an American accent.  He absolutely nails Strange's initial arrogance and resistance to Eastern mysticism, while gradually shifting his character into a more appealing hero.

KAECILIUS -- Mads Mikkelsen, as anyone who saw Casino Royale or the Hannibal TV series knows, gives good villain.  The problem with Kaecilius, however, is that's he not a villain you love to loathe.  His big plan to have everyone living together in a realm where time doesn't exist doesn't sound all that bad, until you start thinking about being under the role of an otherdimensional dark lord.

KARL MORDO -- Chiwetel Ejiofor may not be the first name you think of when it comes to Baron Mordo, but he does well enough for a character who isn't going to reach his potential until a future sequel.  Ejiofor first hit my geek radar as The Operative in the movie Serenity, so I knew he was more than capable of playing a multi-faceted bad guy.  I can't wait to see Mordo go full Dark Side, hopefully sooner rather than later.

NIGHT NURSE/CHRISTINE PALMER -- As the much-needed female character to break up the film's sorcerer sausage fest, Rachel McAdams kept fans guessing if she was going to be Doctor Strange's disciple and love interest Clea.  That sadly wasn't the case, and McAdams ends up pretty much wasted as Christine Palmer, a character who mainly exists to help show a contrast between Strange's life before and after becoming a sorcerer.  

WONG -- The irony of Benedict Wong being cast as Wong isn't lost on me, but he's terrific as deadpan comic relief.  The scene of Wong listening to BeyoncĂ© is a particular highlight, and it was great to have the character treated as a fellow sorcerer instead of a traditional manservant as he is in the comics.

THE ANCIENT ONE -- Okay, here we go, the controversial casting decision to have British actress Tilda Swinton seems like another awkward whitewashing of a great role for an Asian actor, or at the very least, a misguided attempt to avoid stereotyping the character.  I can appreciate Marvel's desire to work another female character into Doctor Strange's origin and make her more important than Christine, but this wasn't the way to do it.  Swinton being androgynous once again in a bald cap with a few fake scars isn't an acceptable substitute for an older Asian actor with real gravitas.

DORMAMMU -- Big D was a bit of a letdown for me, since he only shows up in the Third Act as a big mo-cap CGI face that's just one step above Cloudactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.  Hopefully, he returns in a future sequel, depicted in a more traditional form, and gets more to do than be suckered into a time loop.

NICODEMUS WEST -- Michael Stuhlbarg plays Strange's rival as a surgeon, initially as the target of Strange's trolling and later on as the surgeon Strange is forced to rely on because his hands are unable to save the Ancient One (who ends up dying anyway, but whatevs). Nicodemus is another character that might be better served in a sequel, especially if he ends up learning sorcery to rival Strange once again.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Stan "The Man" turns up as a bus rider reading Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception while a mystical battle rages in Manhattan.

THOR CAMEO -- During the bonus mid-credits scene, Chris Hemsworth reprises everyone's favorite God of Thunder to set the stage for Doctor Strange appearing in Thor: Ragnarok.  It's a fun and interesting cameo, with Strange agreeing to help Thor find his foster brother Loki only if Thor and the other Asgardians leave Earth.  Could this be how Thor gets taken off the board when Hemsworth's contract is finished?

All in all, Doctor Strange is the solid origin story of Marvel's Sorcerer Supreme that fans hoped it would be.  As nice as it would be to skip the origin in a character's first film, there's just so much backstory with Doctor Strange that needed explained and Derrickson does his job well.  When you find yourself leaving the theater dying to see what happens next, as I most certainly did, that's the sign of a great movie.

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)

3. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
4. The Avengers (2012)
5. Batman Begins (2005)
6. Man of Steel (2013)
7. Doctor Strange (2016)
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
9. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
10. Spider-Man (2002)

11. Iron Man (2008)
12. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
13. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
14. Watchmen (2009)
15. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
16. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
17. X-Men: First Class (2011)
18. Suicide Squad (2016)
19. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
20. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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