Home » Years » 2016 » Doctor Strange •••1/2

Doctor Strange •••1/2

doctor_strange_posterStarring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: November 4, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Strange that we haven’t yet reviewed this movie, Greg.

Here’s one film that doesn’t need a script doctor. Let’s recap.

The movie opens with the villainous sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) stealing a documented ritual from a book and murdering the librarian of ancient mystical texts in Kathmandu, Nepal. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tries to prevent the theft but is unsuccessful. We then meet Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant and cocky neurosurgeon who lives a swanky lifestyle, and his former lover and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who is turned off by Strange’s egocentricity.

Strange goes for a ride in his sports car and is distracted by his cell phone while driving. He goes off a cliff and in a near-death accident loses nearly all the functioning of his hands – which are his bread and butter. He attempts every operation and seeks the help of every surgeon, but none can help him. Finally he travels to Nepal and becomes a student of The Ancient One – who begins to tame his arrogance.

Greg, Doctor Strange tells the origin story of a spiritual superhero, Stephen Strange, played with great flair by Benedict Cumberbatch. In some ways, the story is predictable in showing us a man of science who is skeptical of the spirit world yet must immerse himself in that world if he is to transform himself into a heroic entity. The film works largely due to the performances of Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, who plays Strange’s mysterious and powerful spiritual mentor. We’re also treated to some nice CGI effects that depict many wondrously wizardly visuals.

If The Matrix, Inception, and Harry Potter had a baby, it would look a lot like Dr. Strange. I was favorably impressed with Doctor Strange. I’m not prone to enjoying stories dealing with mysticism – as they too often call upon spell-of-the-moment to solve a problem. But Doctor Strange takes great care to build the rules of the mystical universe – and then takes great pains to work within those rules.

If I were to name a complaint, it’s that the powers that Doctor Strange and his cohorts rely upon are channeled through a device called a “Sling Ring.” It smacked too much of Harry Potter’s wand and for such an advanced mystical realm, seemed too limiting. But of course, the Sling Ring made for convenient plot disruptions when a character loses their ring and cannot perform magic.

Another nod to the Harry Potter universe is the way certain magical objects “choose their user” rather than the other way around. Strange’s iconic cape selected him during a fierce battle and saved his life. I’m not familiar with the Doctor Strange comics, so I can’t say which universe used the idea first. But it was a distraction that pulled me out of the story.

Strangely, that cape assumes the unusual role of mentor to Strange. It guides him to the metal straightjacket that stops Kaecilius during the fierce battle that you mention. Have we ever before seen a lifeless prop serve as a mentor? Of course, in a world of spells and spirits, nothing is really lifeless with every object holding the potential for magic.

The Ancient One is the primary mentor of the story, although she is a flawed one in deriving her energy from the dark side. One of the strengths of Doctor Strange lies in the development of her character and the evolution of the relationship between her and Strange. It’s a complicated alliance that ebbs and flows. Kaecilius may serve as a dark mentor to Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who seems to have been influenced by the villain’s dark, twisted logic.

Doctor Strange is an interesting hero because he undergoes a dramatic transformation. He starts out self-absorbed, falls into despair, becomes so humble that he throws himself to the mercy of The Ancient One, then rises to take his place in the hierarchy of the mystic realm and a protector of the Earth. It’s a rollercoaster ride that delivers a very satisfying resolution.

Strange’s relationship with The Ancient One is one we’ve seen before. He goes seeking the mentor whereas usually the mentor finds the hero. As with The Karate Kid. the mentor here does not initially accept the hero as a student. The hero must convince the mentor to take on the role. However, The Ancient One suffers the same fate as mentors past – she must die for the hero to feel the full force of the stakes of the story. It was a predictable albeit poignant moment.

Another thing to notice about The Ancient One is that she is a past hero. We often see mentors pass along their heroic lessons to up-and-coming heroes. We’ve seen this in The Hunger Games, Star Wars, Star Trek 2009 and so many other stories. Our mentor character has been to battle and back. And now the hard-won lessons learned are gifted to the new hero.

Doctor Strange introduces us to a new superhero in the Marvel universe, a gifted physician who loses his hands and can only recover his functioning by undergoing a dramatic spiritual transformation in an exotic location. The film owes its success to some powerful performances, most notably by the ever-versatile Benedict Cumberbatch and the enigmatic Tilda Swinton. I enjoyed Doctor Strange and award it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey is rich and complex. Strange’s accident brings him to his knees and like most heroes, Strange undergoes a significant transformation with help from Mordo and especially The Ancient One. One of the themes of the story is the struggle between arrogance and humility: Will Strange allow his massive ego to turn him to the dark side of Kaecilius or will he remain humble enough to use his powers wisely? Strange is tested in this area and appears to pass the test, albeit barely. Strange’s heroic development earns him 4 Hero points out of 5.

The mentoring in the story is strong and fascinating, as it involves a cape who assists our hero in making wise choices and a powerful spiritual guru who employs tough love in imparting great wisdom to our hero. As I’ve noted, the relationship between Strange and the Ancient One is complex, dynamic, and commands our attention throughout the film. I give the mentorship in this movie 4 Mentor points out of 5.

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Doctor Strange was a surprise offering from Marvel films. It’s unusual for a film to premier in November and continue to run through December – and rank consistently high in box office sales. Doctor Strange does this by offering a unique world filled with strong characters and even stronger performances. While the film owes much of its appeal through masterful special effects, it’s the presentation of a superhero the likes of which we haven’t seen before that makes Doctor Strange worth seeing once and again. I give this film 4 out of 5 Reels.

Stephen Strange’s origin story is just what we’d expect from Marvel films. Strange is immensely gifted but is completely self-centered. His debilitating accident doesn’t change his egocentric nature. But when he begs to be taught the ways of The Ancient One, he enters a world of mysticism at complete odds with his scientific training. He has to reevaluate everything he knows. It’s a great set up for a hero’s journey and Doctor Strange delivers a hero’s genesis story that kept me wanting more. I give Stephen Strange 4 out of 5 Heroes.

There’s a lot of mentoring in this film. Even before Strange meets The Ancient One, he has years of training in the sciences that make him a successful surgeon. We’ve talked about the unseen mentors before. But it isn’t until he enters the world of mystical realms that we see the kind of mentoring that truly changes our hero. The Ancient One shows Strange what *can be* and so opens the door to new realities. She then gives him advice, teaching, and magical gifts that allow him to transcend the limits of his scientific mind and become a true hero. I give The Ancient One 4 out of 5 Mentor points.

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