Doctor Strange; Opt for a Matinee

I liked Doctor Strange. I saw it in 3D, which means in my case putting those glasses on over my own glasses and (always) courting an eyestrain headache. I consider Doctor Strange worth the ache for its entertainment value, even if the story doesn’t hold up, after the fact, to close inspection.

I have only read one graphic novel with Doctor Strange in it, and it was Avengers 1602, or something… Neil Gaiman wrote it and Strange looked perfectly like a 17th century Spanish grandee. I think it was the combination of the cape and goatee. That gave me a misleading understanding of the character. I thought he might be British, and I thought that the surname Strange was chosen deliberately to echo the name of the British aristocratic family who were minor players during the Tudor era. They weren’t the high-stakes folks, just “regular” aristocrats trying to make a buck without getting thrown into the Tower of London. Still.

Imagine my surprise that Stephen Strange is as American as a Starbucks, a genius neurosurgeon who is too much like Tony Stark to be likeable. We watch him push around a couple of colleagues including the former girlfriend, then perform a miraculous bit of surgery that might hint that he has supernatural abilities. Then he drives while distracted, dumps his high-performance car into the river, and sustains serious nerve damage to his hands. No more surgery for super-surgeon.

I nearly wept. For that car. It was so young! It had so bright a future!

But… the comic-to-movie migration is a lot about visuals, and if you want an actor that looks like Doctor Strange just stepped out of a comic book, Benedict Cumberbatch is your guy. This is a perfect match of physical actor with character. I didn’t know Cumberbatch could do physical comedy (although that shouldn’t surprise me; he is talented and obviously has a strong work ethic), but the funny scenes are very funny. The character of Strange is not deep, as I said, but Cumberbatch makes that work throughout the movie.

You know who else looked perfectly awesome? Tilda Swinton, that’s who. Courting controversy in the bleached and gender-swapped role of the (formerly Asian male) Ancient One, Swinton plays a mystic teacher who humbles Strange and teaches him magic. She is great. Her casting still gives me problems, especially when the director himself said that every screenplay version with the Ancient One as an Asian woman conjured up “Dragon Lady” comparisons.  This is his failure of imagination and I hope he works on it in future films.

I’ll leave it at this: “Casting Swinton shows a lot of the problem of the studio thought process when it comes to non-white ethnic characters – and Swinton was awesome.”

Then, Mads Mikkelsen. He owned the role of the villain, the proud, angry former student of the Ancient One who turned away from the path of so-called righteousness and has wandered down a bad path. First of all, Mikkelsen drips intensity, and then… his facial makeup was imaginative and almost, for this kind of film, minimalist. Perfect.

Tied in the giving-great-performances-while-being-criminally-underutilized category are Chewetel Ejiofor and Rachel MacAdams. They’re both great. They both should have had meatier roles, and I would have been willing to give up at least two kaleidoscoping-cities scenes to get that. MacAdams plays the girlfriend/conscience/walking first aid kit and both the character and the actor deserve better. Given the trajectory of Ejiofor’s character, he needed much more meaningful screen time. In his case this isn’t necessarily more time; we needed scenes that revealed his character more.

And still… I enjoyed the acid-trippy 3Dness of it all. I loved the cape. I should perhaps be worried that the cape was my favorite character. While the magic is not supported or explained in any meaningful way (it’s “magic”) and the rules are arbitrary, the magical trick Strange pulls off to defeat the cosmic enemy –and there is one – tickled me.

I recommend seeing this at matinee prices. It works well to introduce Strange and the arts of magic directly into the Avenger movie story-line. And it’s gorgeous.

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