‘Dr. Strange’ Review: Marvel Psychedelia

Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in "Dr. Strange".

By Érico Lotufo
BU News Service

Watching “Doctor Strange” is like seeing a Salvador Dali painting of a simple flower vase, or an electric sitar version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” While the movie’s content itself is familiar and overdone in superhero movies, it’s packaged around fascinating visuals and effects that make a road often traveled transform into an intense and pleasurable acid trip.

Buildings bend and twist on each other, while their windows twirl creating kaleidoscopic images. Meanwhile, up becomes down, left becomes right and streets fold into cubes while cars impossibly ride on their sides as if nothing was going on. It’s truly amazing to watch.

But all that flourish happens during another Marvel retread of the “arrogant man learns to be a hero” plotline you’ve seen in Iron Man and Thor. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) – or I should say Dr. Stephen Strange – is a big shot neurosurgeon who loses stability in his hands after a terrible car crash caused by his blatant disregard for others: he went too fast in a mountainous road, crashed onto another car, and bam, his surgical career is over.

The search for a cure puts him on his heroic path, but not before alienating Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – again, Dr. Christine Palmer – his on/off girlfriend and co-worker. After he attempts multiple experimental treatments, he bets his last chance on a miracle cure in Nepal.

There, he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong, playing his namesake), who introduce him to a world of magic and mysticism. At the same time, former disciple Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), now forsaken by The Ancient One, attempts to tap into a dimension of infinite power to “stop time” (it’s as vague as it sounds in the movie too).

It’s your typical Marvel stuff: man is arrogant, man gets lesson of humility, man becomes hero defeating villain that is corrupt version of himself, man gets girl, the end. “Doctor Strange” itself seems to acknowledge this conundrum. They don’t waste time in putting Strange in his accident, with maybe not even 10 minutes of runtime passing before he has his hands in braces. It wants to desperately jump to the magic part as soon as possible, as if that way maybe audiences won’t notice that they’re watching the same story unfolding for the third time.

Of course, this time you have ninjas battling it out on the sides of buildings while the entire world folds into itself. It’s “Inception” on steroids, with the gunfights in spinning, twisting surfaces switched out for Kung-Fu. It’s a blast to behold, with the only question in your mind being, “what will they do next?”

They do a whole lot. I wouldn’t doubt that part of the script writing process was just Marvel asking action movie fans, “so what’s the most absurd fight scene that you can think of?” Hand-to- hand combat on the side of several London buildings, while they roll into themselves like a carpet? Check. How about two ghosts battling it out in the Astral Plane while the physical body of one of them is having surgery? Check. And what about a fight happening in real time while everything else is going back in time? Big check.

It’s the cinematic realization of one of the most ignored aspects of comic books: psychedelia. Probably no other narrative medium fits it best than comics, with examples ranging from Steve Ditko’s run of “Dr. Strange” to Alan Moore’s “Saga of the Swamp Thing” (which was so trippy that it had an entire issue based on swamp-monster-and-woman-sex via acid trip potatoes). And now, after countless movie adaptations, comic psychedelia finally reaches the big-screen.

All throughout the movie, the two paradoxical feelings of familiarity and novelty wrestle, so the characters and their actors must come in to break the tie and succeed positively. Benedict Cumberbatch snuggly enters the hall of Marvel superheroes, as Doctor Strange is a cocky magician that loves cracking jokes about the overly-serious nature of the magical world. At his side, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong play his foils, the straight-men to his Tony Stark-esque quip routine.

But the movie isn’t shy to be dramatic at times. Director Scott Derrickson (who also co-writes) makes use of his abundantly talented cast (probably the most talented among non-team- up Marvel movies) with several shot/reverse shot arguments that are typically found in Oscar-bait pictures.

The acting in these scenes is spot-on, although the overuse of close-ups makes the conversations seem overly claustrophobic, especially compared to the expansive nature of the magical scenes. In a way, it fits the film’s overall theme: while humans have their petty discussions in the physical plane, whole realms of free-roaming space exist for those who have the courage to look beyond themselves. In another way, it just doesn’t look good.

Of course, all of this is part of a bigger picture, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is quickly noted that these kind of mystical threats are something beyond the Avengers’ jurisdiction. So the tired question of “Hey, why isn’t Iron Man/Captain America being called up to help?” made in most solo efforts is a moot point. Only the magical can fight back the mystical. Post-credit scenes, however, firmly establish Doctor Strange as a player in the upcoming films.

“Doctor Strange” has so much of what Marvel Studios has perfected over the years: a blueprint for a great movie, including a simple story in a tight script, a non-combative director that still has some space for personal flair and money to pay A-list actors for costumed superhero roles. “Strange,” however, proves that even the most calculated things can sometimes be surreal.

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