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Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ rescues a tired narrative with breathtaking visuals

In the early days of the superhero movie craze (circa 2008), films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight offered an original thought: What if stories about masked vigilantes fighting crime and evil could offer action and drama in equal measures? These films relied on character relationships in tandem with groundbreaking special effects to overcome narrative flaws. It was an exciting mix that proved likable to both audiences and critics as the Marvel Cinematic Universe found with its continued success.

Fast forward to 2016, and that formula has begun to show its age and predictability. Look no further than Doctor Strange, the 14th film in Marvel’s everlasting media empire. The film features a story that borrows heavily from the now-many origin tales before it, and it’s easy to see the flaws in its technique.

Luckily, director Scott Derrickson surrounds the toothless plot with wondrous, kaleidoscopic visuals that give the audience plenty to absorb onscreen. The result is a combination of blockbuster narrative hackery and visual splendor that manages to succeed as a fine entry into the superhero canon despite its flaws.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Steven Strange, a brilliant but extremely arrogant neurosurgeon who prides himself in performing nearly impossible operations on patients whose cases are deemed hopeless. That all changes when he suffers a horrific accident that causes severe nerve damage to both of his hands, ending his career and spiraling him into depression.

As he scours the globe for possible treatments, his search leads him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic mystic who introduces Strange to the concept of magic and invites him to learn the ways of sorcery. Strange eventually learns to manipulate the astral plane and fight off magical threats to humanity, including Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former apprentice of the Ancient One who attempts to open the dark dimension and surrender Earth to malevolent forces.

While the film’s lore and jargon may be inherently silly (welcome to the superhero genre), Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill keep the whole affair from getting too bogged down. There’s plenty of humor sprinkled throughout the film’s 115 minutes, with decently funny results. Highlights include the red Cloak of Levitation, which acts with a mind of its own and results in some quality slapstick, and Cumberbatch’s snobbishly awkward exchanges with other characters:

“People used to think I was funny.”

“Did they work for you?”

But it’s the film’s visual extravagance that elevates it above substandard blockbuster fare. Its battle sequences are masterpieces of puzzle-like environmental choreography. Buildings fold in on themselves, vehicles defy physics and sorcerers run along sideways hallways with regularity in set pieces that put Inception to shame. These sequences look so spectacular that the lameness of the film’s structure is almost avoidable.

Unfortunately, the film’s biggest flaws come from the film’s status as a Marvel movie. And more than some Marvel movies, this one moves along at a frantic pace. Moments that should tug at the heartstrings fall flat because of the filmmakers’ refusal to dwell. Characters are barely introduced (like Strange’s love interest Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams) before they’re thrust into dramatic and emotional situations. The audience isn’t given enough time to relate to these characters’ troubles and relationships.

The result is a feeling that the film exists only to further the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a phenomenon that has become more inescapable as the universe continues to expand. With the 15th Marvel film on the horizon, it is unclear how these box office juggernauts will bring anything unique to the table. For now, we’re left with a fun but limited Doctor Strange.

Watch the trailer for Doctor Strange below:


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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]