Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
We are now about waist deep in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we’ve sat through at least five stand-alone (cough cough, male) superhero origin stories already. From IRON MAN’s cocky magnetism, to, CAPTAIN AMERICA’s real world patriotic anchor, to ANT MAN’s broad comedic strokes, each have contained a certain hook – a new way of telling its mythical hero’s journey. And most have also proven to be only as good as the lead actor at the heart of the tale. While director Scott Derrickson’s DOCTOR STRANGE sufficiently hits all the correct targets, the most refreshing addition is how it melds mind-bending, show-stopping, kaleidoscopic visuals with its narrative stakes. Transfixing, thrilling and trippy, it’s INCEPTION on steroids.
Premiere neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Crumbleyboo Cumberbatch) may be rolling in dough, but he’s a poor human being when it comes to empathy. He’s conceited, arrogant and materialistic. Not only does he treat his colleague Dr. Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg) with flagrant disrespect, he also makes for terrible boyfriend material for Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who’s holding out hope he might change. However, his world turns upside down (in more than just one sense) when a near fatal car accident robs him of his life’s talent – the use of his hands. Seeking a cure in Nepal leads him to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, playing herself in her natural state). With the help of trainer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and stiff-faced librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), Dr. Strange must learn to harness the mystical powers of other dimensions and expand his mind and skill set. It’s not going to be easy though, considering Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his zealot squad are out to unleash an evil force on this world.
Narratively, Derrickson and co-writers C. Robert Cargill and John Spaihts take audiences along a path that’s structured much like IRON MAN’s. Though these two films are sufficiently distinct properties in the same realm, they share more similarities than differences: Both feature a hero who learns a similar lesson about self-sacrifice. Both heroes answer the call and work with their disabilities rather than against them. And both feature female love interests that service the male agency more than anything. At least Pepper Potts eventually arcs into a badass businesswoman. The same can’t be said of Dr. Palmer, who’s an amalgam of characters from the comic, i.e. the screenwriters’ invention who should’ve been much more inventive. Strange and Palmer’s romance is blessedly sorta shrugged away anyways – small miracles, I suppose.
Despite a few slightly repetitive story elements, DOCTOR STRANGE still doesn’t feel totally stale – thanks mostly to the way the filmmakers keep emotional stakes at the forefront of the killer action sequences. They are unlike anything you’ve seen before. Each sequence (like when Strange is told to open his third eye, or the astral projection in the hospital, or the spectacular backwards-forwards number towards the end) hits like a wallop of whoa. Typically, it’s hard to deal with magic because when anything can be possible, there are no stakes and no rules. But here, the filmmakers handle it perfectly. There are specific rules to the incantations and the dimensions they tussle in. Plus, there’s a good amount of humor to this – more so than many will expect.
Even though it does get a tad expository, explaining all the gadgets (a.k.a. all the toys you and your kids will want to own), with an ensemble as solid as this and all the eye-bursting special effects, this is a grand scale adventure worth taking.
DOCTOR STRANGE opens on November 4.