2016. Directed by Scott Derrickson.
The most visually stimulating entry into Marvel's Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is a hyper fantasy reenactment of the tried and true superhero origin story. Refusing to deviate from the blockbuster formula, the final product obstinately stays within the safety zone, failing to delve into any of the intriguing questions is poses, delivering a naively fun final product.
Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant, narcissistic neurosurgeon. He loses control over his hands as the result of a careless auto accident. His search for a cure leads him to Kathmandu, where he meets the Ancient One, a powerful sorcerer who teaches him how to harness the mystical energies of the universe. Strange's esoteric evolution is interrupted when a former student returns, opening a gateway between Earth and the dark dimension, a realm of unending evil and torment, forcing Strange to confront his shortcomings and accept the mantle of cosmic defender.
Doctor Strange is a technical wonder. Ray Chan's art direction is easily one of the strongest facets, particularly the hand crafted interior of the mental dojo Karmar-Taj. Filled with intricately carved wooden pillars and countless arcane relics, the set is a hidden object game brought to life. Alexandra Byrne's costume designs are distinctive in their Eastern presentation, with the Ancient One's initial combat garb stealing the focus. Paul Corbold's special effects flood the visual field with illogical Escher-like graphics that mentally perplex in all the right ways. This is a film that demands an IMAX 3D viewing, worth the exorbitant price if only for the optical spectacle.
Michael Giacchino's score is a bold departure, eclipsing previous Marvel soundtracks with a larger than life approach that perfectly captures the head trip experience. Ben Davis's cinematography never gets a chance to shine, constantly overshadowed by the effects, however, when the camera is allowed to focus on reality, there are some interesting wide shots that footnote the film's woefully unexplored somber undercurrents.
Derrickson and Robert Cargill's script has a restrained and shallow feel, presenting what could have been one of the most engrossing superhero stories in a playfully surface level manner. There are no surprises awaiting within the story, everything is shoehorned into a neat package to allow the titanic visuals to remain in the fore. Benedict Cumberbatch uses what little material he's given in a masterful way, but its too much too fast to grow any kind of attachment. Tilda Swinton is the standout, stealing virtually every scene she inhabits as the Ancient One. Rachel McAdams gives one of the most wasted female performances of the year, barely having enough screen time or personality to leave an imprint. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the operative from Firefly in a monk's costume, right down to the unwavering ethical code. Every role, even Swinton and Cumberbatch's are paper mached on as an afterthought to keep the viewer fixated on the effects.
James Churchman's outstanding fight choreography was an unexpected surprise, abandoning the Luchadore antics of the Avengers with displays of fast and furious martial arts. The initial fight scene between The Ancient One and the villains is so physically entertaining, that it sets a bar that the rest of the film is regrettably unable to reach. This is Doctor Strange's biggest flaw, it constantly hints at being a better, more artful film, but never takes the plunge. It becomes apparent within the first act that the million dollar recipe will be maintained at any cost and the result is a gorgeous, but tragically predictable film.
In theaters now, superhero fans will find many things to love with Doctor Strange. Casual viewers may be put off by the minimal characters and stereotypical narrative, but the visuals will astound regardless. While the story aspects are lean, the sparse combat scenes and the pristine CGI effects make Doctor Strange a worthwhile 3D experience, but only if you're in the mood for something painfully light.