DOCTOR STRANGE is a massive, much-needed jolt of fresh fun into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I find it ironic this CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON meets INCEPTION superhero flick, one I was not anticipating in the least, is my favorite entry in the MCU since 2014’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. With that said, let’s be clear: Marvel has never made a bad movie. There have been 12 entries, including IRON MAN (2008), which launched the MCU, and even the weakest entries (I’m looking at you AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2) have been pretty good in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t know much about the Doctor Strange character. I know that when my son and I play MARVEL: ULTIMATE ALLIANCE on the XBOX, he’s on the list of WTF characters that go unplayed by yours truly. But as they have with Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and the Guardians of The Galaxy, Marvel has taken a third-string comic book hero and made us care. Actually, let me say that differently: Writer/director, Scott Derrickson (SINISTER), and Benedict Cumberbatch, make us care through the brisk, trippy, well-balanced 115 minute runtime.
When I say brisk, I mean it. Derrickson is able to plop an entire superhero origin story in less than two hours. That’s something that would make Christopher Nolan (THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY) dry heave, but such is the way of the Marvel origin story – two hours or less, with very few exceptions. And that sub-120 minute timeframe begins in New York City, where we meet neurosurgeon, Steven Strange. He seems a likeable enough fellow, but his collection of watches, fancy car, display cases of awards and his cocky, in-your-face camaraderie with his fellow doctors leads us to the conclusion that he’s kind of a douchebag. This is confirmed by the way he treats his on-again-off-again girlfriend, and fellow doctor, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
After Strange’s hands – the very instruments that make him an incredible man of medicine – are destroyed in a car crash (please don’t text and drive!), he searches and explores every option to heal his damaged hands, but to no avail. However, as fate would have it, he’s directed to Kathmandu, India and a monastery of sorts, a place called Kamar-taj. Kamar-taj is home to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her right-hand-man, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They see potential in the haughty Steven Strange and let him into their world of astral projection, sorcery and other dimensions. And, like in most origin stories, the training montage begins. This is the lull before the storm, where our hero fights the baddies and inserts himself into the MCU canon.
The baddies in DOCTOR STRANGE are a bunch of disenfranchised former students of the Ancient One. They are led by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and swear allegiance to an even bigger baddie named Dormammu, a giant purple face floating in someplace called The Dark Dimension. Like most bad guys, he wants Earth and has promised eternal life to Kaecilius and his fanatics. All of this sets the stage for the movie’s final act and makes for a very peppy pre-holiday blockbuster.
DOCTOR STRANGE is weird and funny and invigorating. It’s not perfect, but it’s the perfect antidote to the stale, humdrum CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR that missed the mark back in May. As I said before, I wasn’t anticipating DOCTOR STRANGE, nor the other three upcoming MCU tales – SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, BLACK PANTHER and CAPTAIN MARVEL, but if I can expect the same dose of originality and pep in Phase Three of Marvel’s grand movie plan, then count me jazzed.