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Doctor Strange Review

“You're a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You've spent your life trying to widen it. Your work saved the lives of thousands. What if I told you that reality is one of many?” – The Ancient One


And the Mighty Marvel Mega Movie Machine keeps thundering forward, with a momentum unequalled in film history. Once again, they take one of their secondary players and knock the ball completely out of the park with a stunning, funny, dramatic, surprising blockbuster. Seemingly, they can do no wrong at this point. It’s also apparent that the naysayers who tell us that audiences are reaching the point of a superhero movie fatigue are happily mistaken.

I’ve read quite a bit of the early Doctor Strange comics of the sixties. He was one of two enduring characters in the Marvel titles to be created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The other was Spider-Man.

Spider-Man is, was and ever shall be my favourite character from Marvel, and I’ve always loved those early issues before Ditko, a legendary recluse who hasn’t given a media interview since 1968. Doctor Strange, back then, was a lot harder for me to get into. I think, on reflection it was the extraordinarily trippy artwork that Steve Ditko (and his successors) created for the strip that was both memorable and a little off putting. That and the various mystic dimensions that featured – obviously now in retrospect, aimed towards college students, not eight year old me.

As far as I can recall, the first time I read a strip featuring the Sorcerer Supreme, it was a Spider-Man story where an evil wizard had stolen a powerful wand that was in Strange’s care and Spider-Man helped recover it. I mention this, because that same wand is clearly seen in this film – the Wand of Watoom.

Though the good Doctor has been seen in animated form on TV and DVD, there has only been one attempt to bring Strange to live-action life previously, the pilot film for a proposed TV series back in 1978, and I’ve featured that version in this year’s Shocktober – see the review here.

I’ll admit that when the film was announced – I had my concerns. Same as usual, I thought that the character was not mainstream enough to the general non comicbook savvy public to draw in the audiences and that the box office returns might dwindle and have the ripple effect of the studio being reluctant to plough as much money into their future films. Following that, I feared the box office returns might dwindle and have the ripple effect of the studio being reluctant to plough as much money into their future films. Hey, it’s happened before. We’ve all seen lucrative franchises bled dry to the last drop with less and less money being spent and less and less coming in.

The choice of director Scott Derrickson didn’t exactly inspire much confidence in me either. Previously he directed Hellblazer: Inferno, which is a classic, textbook case of a dwindling franchise being bled dry. He also directed Sinister – a horror movie that despite a great premise, I just couldn’t warm to.

Well, I guess it shows what I know.

Iron Man wasn’t the most mainstream of Marvel characters until Robert Downey Jr took the role and virtually immortalised him. I had never read any of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics, but look what happened with THAT film. As for Derrikson directing, my doubts were unfounded. The film is just magnificent on every level.

A huge slice of the credit for the film being what it is goes to the genius casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Stephen Strange. And that’s something that Marvel have excelled at from Downey Jr to Scarlett Johanssen, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Paul Bettany, Tom Hiddleston to even the supporting characters and villains. They’ve all looked the part that was drawn in the comicbooks.

Strange, as drawn by Ditko had a kind of off-kilter look to his appearance. Cumberbatch, with a goatee beard, looks that otherworldy, almost alien character. That, and his voice has a quality to it that at times, reminds me of Vincent Price’s delivery. I’ve read that Price was in fact an inspiration for the look of the character when Ditko drew him originally. Further, as a nod to this, Strange’s middle name is Vincent.

Now, much as I enjoyed the TV movie, which after searching for it with a Holy Grail like zeal for well over 34 years, there’s no denying that given the constraints that as far as delivering a straight up Doctor Strange film, it fell short of its mark – especially by today’s standards, not to mention budgets. None of the trappings of the comicbook were evident. Even Strange’s origin bore no resemblance to the source material. (Though having said that, I really do love the film – go figure.)

So, there were expectations going in that even now, post viewing, seemed unreasonably high.

And they were ALL exceeded.

So, what did I want to see?

Well, I wanted the proper, canon origin of a self centered egomaniacal surgeon who picked and chose who to help and who not to. The arrogance of life or death choice on others. I wanted that stripped away from him and for him then to go on a journey of self discovery to accept his role as the Sorcerer Supreme at the feet of the Ancient One.

The cloak of levitation. Yeah – not seeing that would’ve been a deal breaker. I never expected it to have quite the personality that it display, though.

The All Seeing Eye of Agamotto – absolutely needed to see that. (I loved those weird quasi mystical names that Stan Lee gave these things). The Wonderous Wand of Watoomb was an unexpected surprise.

Mordo – he needed to be part of the origin. And in his green outfit too. Bonus.

The Sanctum Sanctorum – Strange’s base of operations in New York with its symbolic window.

Hand gestures and circular bands of mystical power emanating from them just as Ditko drew them, but made real.

The Dread Dormammu.

I saw everything. I walked away happy. In fact more than happy. Not to put too fine a point on it, I walked away actively planning the next trip to the multiplex and a re-visit.

I won’t give away any plot spoilers other than what is above – and all of that is pretty evident from the trailer anyway. If you’ve read the origin issue of the comic, then you basically know the story. If you don’t, then you have a wonderous story ahead to discover and I recommend that you do so.

Not only did I revel in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal but also the humour, particularly in scenes where Strange uses his developing powers to confound Wong and borrow several forbidden volumes in the library.

A particular surprise was the level of ingenuity shown in the visual effects. I’m used to seeing huge blockbusters with awesome special effects that take me beyond my imagination. I’ve been a fan of Industrial Light & Magic since I first saw their work in 1977. I’ve watched as their cutting edge skills have developed, transforming the effects company from a one-shot deal, set up for Star Wars to the world’s leading effects company. I’ve studied their work and their methods. I have several books on that company. But much as they’ve stunned me with their brilliance over the past 39 years, NEVER have they challenged my perception or bewildered my eyes as much as they do in Doctor Strange. Landscapes seem to alter, fold in and over on themselves in segments as a battle takes place, with each individual segment moving within itself.

I found myself wondering just how would a person imagine that? I mean, I’ve SEEN it and I’m not quite sure how to describe what I saw, but how would you come to imagine something that nobody has ever seen before, let alone describe it to the guys at ILM. And for them to then develop a means of executing that credibly on screen?

In another battle, the true ingenuity of what we see isn’t evident until after the scene is over and you realise that you’ve watched a hectic battle of sorcerers in real time, while EVERYTHING around them is moving BACKWARDS – in slow motion.

Truly a stunning film. Sixteen movies on, Marvel keeps rocking, surprising and delighting. Much as I have loved Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, and much as I am, deep in my heart a DC fan – this year definitely belongs to Marvel.

 

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