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World-famous neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange's (Benedict Cumberbatch) life changes forever after a horrific car accident renders his hands useless. When traditional medicine fails him, he travels to the remote Kamar-Taj in search of a cure, but, instead, discovers the mystical arts and becomes a powerful sorcerer, battling dark forces bent on destroying our reality. (From Marvel’s official synopsis)

 Doctor Strange
Based on the meager pre-release information, Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange became the first post- Avengers Marvel Cinematic Universe release that I was utterly wary of. The red flags began with the title character himself, who, despite being an integral and enduring part of the comic book universe, is not easily adaptable to film – especially not for a studio like Marvel, who strives to reach the top-tier of the middle ground. Calling attention to failed attempts to adapt the character in the past, namely Philip DeGuere’s truly terrible made-for-TV Dr. Strange (1978) and Charles & Albert Band’s genuinely entertaining Doctor Mordrid (1992), may not be entirely relevant in the day and age of digital effects technology, but these flops do illustrate the difficulty in modifying the mystic side of Marvel for mainstream audiences. Like the Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider, Strange might work better when he’s airbrushed on the side of a van, then in a mall cineplex. That said, the reports that head honcho Kevin Feige was very interested in fully embracing the weird side of the subject matter inspired some confidence...until he hired Derrickson to direct, that is.

Derrickson is not a hack, but his career up to Doctor Strange had obvious taste issues and a downward arc in quality. His best work as a director, namely The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) remake, was visually stifled and unnattractive, while his worst, namely Deliver Us from Evil (2014), was downright ugly. There was little hope that he could achieve the level of abstract madness found on the pages of Steve Ditko’s comics. On top of that, the trailers and promotional images made it look like Marvel was exchanging the tie-dyed cosmic blobs of Ditko’s illustrations for the folding geometric architecture of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). Fortunately, Marvel was merely keeping the more surrealistic events a secret and Doctor Strange (eventually) becomes the wacky, filmic blacklight poster fans and stoners were clamouring for. The trippy parts of this movie are delightfully full-bodied enough that we can forgive Derrickson for coating his other movies in greys and blues. The action scenes that take place within the more intricate special effects are also well-orchestrated, dynamically edited, and more geographically sensical than the average MCU release. However, this stands in contrast to the hand-to-hand battles, which waste good fight choreography with too much shaky-cam and tight framing. I suspect that Derrickson ceded a lot of editorial and compositional control to the digital effects coordinators during those outstanding moments.

 Doctor Strange
Speaking of Christopher Nolan and drab origin stories, this movie cannot overcome its obvious ties to Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and, beyond even that, the formula that Marvel already used for Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008). The stories share an embarrassing number of similarities, which can partially be blamed on the cannibalistic qualities of the comic book industry. Each movie does follow established versions of each character’s comic back-story, but (assuming Marvel forced them to make an origin story) Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts & C. Robert Cargill could’ve strived to avoid at least some incidental and superficial comparisons. Stephen Strange and Tony Stark have so much in common that even good writers, working from established narratives, have been unable to separate them into fully-formed entities, rather than the asshole scientist and asshole spiritualist/magician whose hearts grew three sizes bigger, following basically the same emotional and physical hardships. The further Doctor Strange gets away from these Bruce Wayne/Tony Stark qualities, the better it is. Even the patently predictable final battle and sequel set-up – which arrive in such a timely matter, you could literally set your watch to it – produces some insular surprises and likeable character beats. By the end, I found myself accepting this version of Strange and looking forward to his future adventures, though less as a leading man and more as a guest star – one who pops up to offer the MCU’s more interesting heroes a hand.

The film’s casting is a source of controversy and ennui. The controversy surrounds the fact that Tilda Swinton – a white woman – was cast as the Ancient One. My opinion on the subject is complicated and far from the final word. While the original comic book character was a cringe-worthy stereotype, the adaptation is already mired in the ethical issues of its inherently Asian mythology being dominated by a white point of view. Remaking the Asian guy that teaches these fictional, but Asian-inspired supernatural arts as a white woman is one cultural appropriation too many. However, Swinton’s performance is the best in the entire movie by a wide margin. She consistently elevates the material with wit, charm, and levity, so it seems that, for better or worse, the controversy was worthwhile in the end. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal is less interesting. He’s another safe choice from a company that likes to play it safe with their leading men. His performance is perfectly adequate, because it’s more or less the same one he gives as Sherlock Holmes, just with a different accent. Still, his efforts are undermined whenever he’s set alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, who would’ve been a much better pick to play Strange. Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams (playing Not Pepper Potts) are also safely cast, though it seems impossible for them to turn out boring performances, even when hobbled by the bland dialogue and character motivations of stereotypically uninteresting Marvel villains and love interests. These weaknesses are bolstered by the context of a hero’s origin story, where there’s little time to develop either of them. At least Derrickson’s bad taste in villain make-up is nowhere near as dopey as the rejected nu metal singers of Sinister (2012) or Deliver Us from Evil (2015).

 Doctor Strange

Video


The majority of Doctor Strange was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras (some shots were reportedly photographed on 35mm) and was post-converted into 3D for theatrical screenings. That 3D release was perhaps the best 3D post-conversion I’ve ever seen and one of the few times I’ve actually enjoyed viewing a 3D movie. Some of the scenes were also designed to opened up from 2.40:1 to 1.90:1 during IMAX screenings. This 1080p, steadily 2.35:1 transfer does lose a little something in the transition to 2D, specifically during the manic astral plane/Dark Dimension sequences. Otherwise, this is a very good-looking transfer with very few notable compression issues. The non-astral sequences tend to be desaturated and dark, but also teeming with tight textures that give the shots real depth even without the benefit of 3D. These scenes also feature plenty of punchy yellows (a rather ugly default ‘magic’ colour as far as I’m concerned) and decent contrast between the cooled shadows and blown-out whites. The Ditko-inspired scenes are, of course, more impressive, including psychedelic colour schemes, super-deep blacks, delicate highlights, and subtle gradation shifts. There are some haloes along the harder edges when set against the fuzzier astral backdrops, but I assume these exist by design, in order to ensure that certain shapes pop out.

Audio


Doctor Strange is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound on this Blu-ray release. This mix is particularly aggressive because the movie requires all of the intensities of a superhero movie, a sci-fi action movie, and a trippy fantasy movie. Highlights include a bone-crunchingly funny car crash, nightmarish head-trips into the astral plane, super-powered fisticuffs, architecture that unfolds like a giant clockwork, spellcasting, and time-shifting – all of which fills the channels and throbs the LFE. Doctor Strange is Pixar and Bad Robot favourite Michael Giacchino’s first work with Marvel (he’s also tapped for Spider-Man: Homecoming this summer), but far from his first work on a superhero production, following earlier scores for Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) and Mike Mitchell’s Sky High (2005). His score doesn’t quite overcome the Marvel ‘unmemorable’ curse in that I couldn’t whistle any of the themes for you, but it consistently fits the movie and works well with outrageous special effects. His use of choral and harpsichord arrangements is especially effective and, hopefully, a defining element for the character moving forward.

 Doctor Strange

Extras


  • Commentary with director Scott Derrickson – Derrickson, who warns us that the film had not been released at the time the track was recorded, is perfectly pleasant and focused as he relays behind-the-scenes anecdotes, discusses the roots of the characters, and breaks down the production process. He does talk about the whitewashing controversy, though his defense isn’t particularly convincing.
  • A Strange Transformation (9:42, HD) – A generalized EPK featurette that includes cast & crew interviews and brief footage from the set.
  • Strange Company (12:37, HD) – A similarly fluffy casting featurette in which the actors and filmmakers talk about how great they all are.
  • The Fabric of Reality (12:32, HD) – A look at the costume, set, and production design, as well as the Nepal locations.
  • Across Time and Space (13:21, HD) – The filmmakers break down the stunts, fight choreography, cast training, and extensive digital effects.
  • The Score-cerer Supreme – Composer Michael Giacchino discusses his music.
  • Marvel Studios Phase 3 Exclusive Look (7:28, HD) – A sneak peek at/commercial for Marvel’s upcoming films.
  • Team Thor: Part 2 (4:38, HD) – Another cute, comedic side adventure in the mundane for Thor and his Aussie roommate, Darryl.
  • Five deleted/extended scenes (7:52, HD)
  • Gag reel (4:12, HD)


 Doctor Strange

Overall


While Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013) and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) are both examples of Marvel’s formula fitting unique filmmaker personalities, the studio’s more recent successes have benefited from homogeneity and heavy producer influences. Assuming they continue along these same production lines (and I can’t imagine them changing gears as they approach the supermassive Infinity War movies), their films will likely continue to succeed in spite of their obvious shortcomings. Doctor Strange, like Peyton Reed’s similarly underwhelming (and troubled) Ant-Man (2015), plays it safe and, as a result, is a charmingly mediocre effort that expands the bigger universe. It could’ve been a lot better, but it also could’ve been a lot worse. The 2D Blu-ray looks and sounds great, despite losing some impact from the lack of 3D enhancement. The extras are typically fluffy Marvel stuff, aside from the solid director’s commentary.

 Doctor Strange

 Doctor Strange
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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