Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Despite impressive visual effects and capable performances, “Doctor Strange” lacks the emotional depth and heft that modern superhero films now require. If it were released back in the mid-1990s or early-2000s, it would have been considered first-class, but given that the bar had been set quite high by other Marvel films, viewers with a critical eye are likely to consider the picture to be entertaining in parts but average as a whole. Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill, perhaps the material might have been improved upon given a fuller characterization of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), both as a fallen top neurosurgeon who decides to seek alternative medicine after modern science had failed to fix his injuries and as a believer of the mystic, eventual savior of the planet.

Pay close attention to the way people speak to one another. There is a reductive approach to the script, a nasty habit of explaining how a person feels or thinks about rather than showing and trusting the audience to be empathetic enough to relate to the plight of its characters—not just toward Strange’s circumstances but also to those around him. For example, I found the romantic interest, Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams, to be overwritten. Scenes which depict the two arguing feel as though they are stripped off a bad melodrama. Good melodramas tend to have implications, the script thriving off the unsaid and long silences. Here, just about everything has to be vocalized just in case the audience doesn’t get it.

The writers’ attempts at humor feel misplaced at times. Perhaps it is because I wish so badly to be engaged with the core drama of an arrogant man unable to come to terms with his broken self that all efforts which change the tone come across rather disingenuous. Or maybe the script does not command a strong grip on the story’s identity and thus its inability to control tone effectively. Having not read Stan Lee’s comics, it made me wonder if the source material had the same type of humor or if the humor was tacked onto the film make the work more palatable, relatable to mainstream audiences. Either way, no viewer should have to wonder.

There are neat visual effects in which skyscrapers and busy streets fold into—or out of?—one another as characters battle it out using their limbs and summoned magic. There is an urgency to the chases that allows it to work in an action-fantasy film. Still, such high-level energy fails to continue once the action stops and people start talking or relating to one another. For instance, the subplot point involving Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange’s contrasting approaches—the former’s steel willfulness at following rules to a tee and the latter’s versatility to follow and bend rules when necessary—comes across as rushed and undercooked during the latter half.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, “Doctor Strange” is watchable and entertaining at times, but one gets the feeling there is more to the character and the mythology. And had the filmmakers been willing to take more risks and trust that the audience is capable of understanding the more cryptic aspects of the title character’s universe, they might have created a film that aimed to set an example rather than simply following an oft-traversed path.

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