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Review: Doctor Strange is a wild, weird effects ride

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Marvel Studios adds mystic dimensions to its ever-expanding cinematic universe.

doctor strange
DOCTOR STRANGE
THE GOOD: Benedict Cumberbatch is solid, effects are astounding.
THE BAD: Paint-by-the-numbers story and bland villain.
RATING: A A A A

Looking back at some of Marvel Studios’ early cinematic efforts and its attempts to keep comic book characters and stories relatively realistic and grounded sure seems funny now, especially with the arrival of Doctor Strange, opening Nov. 4.

A wild, effects-driven blockbuster that throws logic and reality to the wind – purposely so – the latest addition to Marvel’s big- and small-screen stable simultaneously treads familiar ground while bearing little resemblance to much of what’s already been established. For a studio with 13 films and five TV shows under its figurative belt, that’s quite a feat.

Doctor Strange plumbs the weird side of the Marvel comic universe, its overt mission being to open up new dimensions – literally – for the likes of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the rest to deal with. But before we get to that, the titular doctor’s origin needs to be established.

If you’ve any familiarity with the comic books, you’ll already know that Stephen Strange bears a similar back story to Tony Stark, otherwise known to all as Iron Man. Like Stark, Strange is successful and arrogant – he’s a gifted New York surgeon who is motivated by self accomplishments rather than helping others.

The opening scenes of the movie spend much time focusing and lingering on Strange’s hands. We see him painstakingly washing and caring for them – understandable, since they are the secrets to his success, the tools with which he is able to dislodge bullets lodged in a patient’s brain and perform other miracle surgeries. They’ve paid for his posh Manhattan loft and flashy sports car.

But, just as Stark was laid low by his own hubris back in Iron Man (2008), so too does fate take a twist for the good doctor. A car crash leaves his hands mangled, his career over. Strange spirals into self-pity and lashes out at those who actually care for him while spending his fortune on risky treatments.

Nothing takes, of course, which is why he ends up heading to Nepal in search of a mysterious cure. It’s only then that he starts on the road to becoming the master of the mystic arts.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a good job as Strange, deftly exuding intelligence and arrogance, tempered by humility and even the occasional humour. But he’s not quite Robert Downey Jr., who managed to turn a similarly unlikable character into a smarmy, franchise-defining smart-ass. So far, Stark is greater than Strange, but let’s see how this goes.

The rest of the cast turn in solid performances as well. Tilda Swinton, the controversial choice for the role of the Ancient One, excels as Strange’s butt-kicking magical mentor. Marvel and director Scott Derrickson were much criticized for casting Swinton, a British actress, for what in the comics is an Asian male.

It was a valid criticism, but Swinton pulls it off nevertheless. Cumberbatch towers over her physically, but she brings a quiet gravitas to the role that makes it clear who the current Sorcerer Supreme is.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams are serviceable in their roles as Mordo, the sidekick, and Christine Palmer, the love interest, with at least one of them due for a larger role in the inevitable sequel.

Mads Mikkelsen, of Hannibal fame, is great in everything he does, but he’s unfortunately saddled with bland Marvel movie villain-itis here. His evil sorcerer Kaecilius is bent on bringing Dormammu, the dread demon of the Dark Dimension, to Earth… and that’s about all the exposition or rationale we get.

The real star of the show are the Inception-like special effects, where cityscapes bend in on themselves and mirror dimensions allow the characters to seemingly fight within optical illusions.

There’s some really inventive stuff going on here, some of which has never been tried before. We’ve all seen superhero battles in exploding cities, for example, but we’ve never seen it done in reverse. It has to be seen to be believed.

It’s also one of those rare movies that should also be experienced in 3D, and possibly while under the influence of some hallucinogens, if you’re into that sort of thing.

All told, Doctor Strange isn’t among the best Marvel movies – see Iron Man – but it’s also not among the worst – see Iron Man 2. The good doctor is a worthwhile addition to the pantheon, even if his opening story comes off as a bit inconsequential.

As with all of Marvel’s cinematic heroes, the real joy will now be to see how he interacts with the rest of the universe and the other characters. We don’t have to wait too long, with a little taste of that supplied in the obligatory mid-credits scene.

If we thought the Marvel cinematic universe was already getting weird and crazy, we evidently haven’t seen anything yet.

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