Once a Neurosurgeon, Now a Weaver of Spells

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By Vincent Abbatecola

Screenshot 2016-11-09 00.02.45Back in May, the Marvel Cinematic Universe commenced Phase Three with the pivotal chapter, “Captain America: Civil War.” Despite the major events of that film, the phase, thankfully, didn’t feel like it began too big, too soon. That’s because there are still so many aspects of the wider story to introduce, and we know there are many exciting things that have yet to come in future installments as we get closer to the two-part “Avengers” finale. At this point, Marvel has something big to add to their expanding narrative: the use of magic.

In director Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange,” he’s tasked with bringing a film that’s visually different from what we’ve seen before, a movie with a heightened sense of the supernatural. Although the film is sometimes hindered by the usual issues of certain Marvel films from the past, it’s still a visual treat anchored by a piece of casting perfection in the titular role.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a renowned neurosurgeon who sustains career-ending injuries in a serious car accident. Feeling lost, he goes on a journey of healing to Nepal, where he comes across a group of individuals who train in the mystic arts to defend Earth against threats from other dimensions. Under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and one of her fellow sorcerers, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Stephen is given the opportunity to learn their powers. When sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), sets out to release an otherworldly force, Strange will have to use his newly honed abilities to combat this evil.

It’s obvious that Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance draws considerably from his work on the BBC series, “Sherlock,” which turns out to be wonderful for the character of Doctor Strange, as both of these roles has Cumberbatch playing someone who has boundless intelligence and a humorously snarky and sarcastic attitude. Because of this, Cumberbatch’s persona in the role practically mirrors that of another actor who plays a Marvel character, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the “Iron Man” films, which will be a tremendous duo to watch when they meet up for the “Avengers” finale. With his performance, Cumberbatch proves to be one of the best additions to the ever-growing cast of the MCU.

Going into this film, you know it’s going to be Cumberbatch’s show, but there are still a couple of other supporting cast members who get their own memorable moments, particularly Swinton and Ejiofor. However, in the case of Rachel McAdams, who plays surgeon Christine Palmer, has enough chemistry with Cumberbatch, her character isn’t as developed as it should be and will hopefully be developed into a more in-depth role that suits McAdams’ talents, instead of the character being mostly a love interest.

As is an issue with several films of the MCU, the main antagonist is rather forgettable. Mikkelsen only gets a couple of scenes with actual dialogue, and then a majority of his screen time is him engaging in fights against Doctor Strange. With the intense villainous role he had 10 years ago in the James Bond film “Casino Royale,” I was looking forward to him turning in another memorable performance as an antagonist. However, much like Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith in “Thor: The Dark World,” there’s evidence of a better performance lurking beneath, but Mikkelsen isn’t given much of a chance to shine through. The villains should be allowed to give as big of an impression as the heroes, especially if you’re going to get talented actors and actresses to portray these villains.

The screenplay by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill, which is based on the characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, can’t help but use the typical Marvel formula; which is kind of letdown because given how this film expands the concept of magic and the supernatural in the MCU, this would have been a great opportunity for Marvel to highlight that change of route by deviating further from their usual blueprint.

On the plus side, the narrative still serves as a competent introduction to Doctor Strange’s character, giving us an insight into his intellect and ambition to master his new abilities after losing the ones he gained after years of practice, and this makes him a character I’m looking forward to seeing in future sequels.

Director Derrickson hasn’t made many big-budget films in the past, as he’s mostly been involved in the horror genre with inexpensive films like “Deliver Us from Evil,” “Sinister,” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” However, with “Doctor Strange,” he assimilates well into the MCU, delivering some very imaginative action sequences. And while the story itself seems conventional in terms of what we’ve seen from Marvel, Derrickson doesn’t shy away from going weird with the imagery, providing us with psychedelic, kaleidoscopic visuals that are some of the best Marvel has offered in any of their films.

While “Doctor Strange” isn’t quite the break from formula I was hoping from Marvel, it does look like it has the potential to become more out-there in future sequels. If Marvel is able to do this, I’m sure the next spell Doctor Strange casts will be even greater.

Final Grade: B

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