Doctor Strange (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): The origin story of another Marvel Comics hero

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“Doctor Strange” is your average origin story of another Marvel Comics hero. Again, we get 1) a long background story on how our hero comes to accept his destiny, 2) an obligatory middle part where he learns more about his awesome power, 3) a ritual cameo appearance by Stan Lee, 4) an expected climax part surrounding the showdown between our hero and some big bad guy who wants, yes, the end of the world as we know, and 5) a couple of teaser scenes during its end credits. While I was constantly aware of how much it sticks to this increasingly familiar storytelling formula which has become rather tiresome to me in these days, the movie is fortunately equipped with some goodies to amuse and entertain me although it often tries too hard for not being too serious.

The first part of the movie looks like a variation of “Grey’s Anatomy” episode. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the best brain surgeons working in New York City, and the early scenes in the movie show him enjoying his prominent professional position as usual. He is cool, arrogant, and confident at his work while occasionally showing his sense of humor which is actually not as funny as he thinks, and his colleagues including Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are surely impressed whenever he performs a highly risky and demanding surgery to be added to his distinguished reputation.

But then there comes an unexpected incident which shatters almost everything in his life. While driving his sports car to somewhere during one night, Strange happens to have an accident, and he is devastated to know later that his dexterous hands are permanently damaged due to irrevocable nerve severance. The more he desperately tries to regain his lost ability, the more it becomes apparent to him that there is really nothing he can do about his injury.

While he becomes more sullen and morose with his physically and financially broken status, Strange comes to learn about one unlikely possibility through a man who miraculously recovered despite his hopeless spinal injury. The guy tells him about a hidden place somewhere in Katmandu, Nepal, and Strange decides to search for that place although he is understandably skeptical about a healer who cured that guy.

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After wandering around the streets and alleys of Katmandu for a while, Strange encounters a guy named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who leads him to the secret place where his mentor the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciples reside. Strange’s skepticism is literally blown away as the Ancient One demonstrates something which completely changes his worldview, and he soon becomes her latest pupil.

As depicting Strange’s training under the guidance of the Ancient One and Mordo, the movie has a fun with establishing its fascinating world of time and dimension which is protected by the Ancient One and her trusted disciples while the Avengers are taking care of more, uh, physical troubles on the Earth. I was amused by the dizzy mind-bending sequence where Strange experiences something as overwhelming as the climax sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and there are several brief wondrous CGI shots which took me back to those beautiful mathematical graphics I saw from James Gleick’s “Chaos: Making a New Science”. I also liked the antique library filled with curious books containing many secrets and knowledges from the ancient time, and Benedict Wong is hilariously unflappable in his deadpan performance as its supervisor.

Rapidly absorbing everything he can read and steadily improving his abilities including getting out of his own body or conjuring a portal to distant place, Strange comes to learn about an immense threat somewhere beyond time and space – and someone very determined to unleash that dark force which can destroy not only the universe but also other universes out there. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former disciple of the Ancient One, and his group of followers recently snatched an important piece of knowledge from the library, and that is just the first step of his deranged plan.

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Not so surprisingly, Strange finds himself being the only one who can stop Kaecilius (is this a spoiler?), and the director Scott Derrickson, who wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill, provides us a series of exciting action sequences reminiscent of “Dark City” (1998), “Matrix” (1999), and “Inception” (2010). With some degrees of wonder and fascination, I observed how streets and buildings are dynamically folded or shaped around characters during these action sequences, and it is a shame that their wonderful sights are frequently interrupted by busy, disorienting actions.

Benedict Cumberbatch has always been good at playing cool, smart characters, and he is well-cast in the title role while showing considerable potential for fun and drama along with his cape which looks amusing as that carpet in “Aladdin” (1992). While Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mads Mikkelsen are rather wasted in their thankless roles, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are solid as the substantial supporting characters who will return with our hero. In case of Tilda Swinton, she deftly balances her character between humor and dignity, and you may forgive the whitewashing of her character thanks to her undeniable charismatic presence on the screen.

“Doctor Strange” is not as strange as it can be, and some of its humorous moments feel too much like self-conscious winks to the audiences (Too bad nobody mentions how much it sucks to be called ‘Master Strange’ instead of ‘Doctor Strange’ for a dude with Ph.D and MD degree), but it works thanks to its good cast and some distinctive flavor to distinguish itself from other Marvel Comics movies. As shown from this film, the Marvel Comics Universe has been mostly fine and entertaining with its new superheroes (or new flavors, shall we say) to be introduced to us, but will there be anything new to surprise or awe us during next several years? We will see.

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