As a big time fan of Silver Age Marvel comics, I get excited every time a new animated Marvel disc hits the stores. Unfortunately the first three, Ultimate Avengers 1 and 2, and The Invincible Ironman, haven't been very good (and that's being charitable.) I had mixed feelings when I heard about a Doctor Strange animated direct-to-video movie. I love the character, Steve Ditko's art on the character's early appearances is absolutely amazing, but if they can't get Ironman right what chance do they have for a less dynamic person like Stephen Strange? Much to my surprise, this is the best of the four Marvel animated discs released so far. While it's far from perfect it is entertaining and fun to watch, which isn't something I can say about the other three.
The film starts with Strange's origin, which takes about 55 minutes of this 75 minute feature. (The back cover lists the running time at 95 minutes, but it's wrong.) Doctor Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon. He's also arrogant, stuck-up, elitist, and an ass-hole. He only cares about patients who can pay the expensive hospital fees or those that will get his name in medical journals. When he is in a car accident that permanently damages his hands, that all changes. Strange spends all of his money looking for a cure that will allow him to operate again. Traveling the world he goes to every specialist and quack but no one can help him. Out of money and out of hope, he tries to kill himself only to be stopped by a mysterious man named Wong. Wong give the doctor a map to a place in Tibet, and tells him that his hands can be healed there.
Borrowing the money to get to China, Strange makes the long and hazardous trek to the temple of the Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme. There he is given menial tasks and physical labor. Eventually this allows his mind to become free, and he's ready to start learning the mystical arts.
After long hours of study with Wong and another disciple Mordo, Strange is ready to join the Ancient One and his other pupils on a mission. A being from another dimension, The Dread Dormammu, is trying to break into our. He's sent monsters to our world several times that the Ancient One's students have repulsed, but now it looks like he's gained the power to break through the seals that are trapping him in his own dimension. Can the Ancient One and Doctor Strange stop this being of pure magic?
There were things I liked about this movie and things I didn't. To start off with the good, they stayed pretty close to the origin story that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko worked out. This wasn't good because they retold (for the most part) the origin from the comics, but because the origin in the comics was so well done. Strange's character and the way he changes is an interesting tale; he's an arrogant surgeon who learns humility when everything he has is taken away.
So why couldn't they leave it like that? It's a great origin. Unfortunately the creators of this special had to add more to his story and these parts stick out like a sore thumb. There's some background added about Strange's sister who has an incurable illness that just didn't make much sense. They also have Strange's latent mystical ability emerge early...at one point he touches a patient in a coma and can see into their mind. That was kind of stupid. What was the deal with Strange seeing the ghost children while driving too? That didn't make much sense either.
The character designs were another aspect that disappointed me. I was really interested in seeing how they portrayed the other dimensions. With current CGI technology you're only limited by your imagination and budget, but it seems that there wasn't enough of the former on this show's creative pool. There wasn't anything new or special about Dormammu's domain. It basically had floating garbage, including a lawn mower, filling the place. Yawn. Dormammu himself wasn't all that impressive either. I can understand why they didn't go with the comic design, basically a man with a plume of fire for a head, but what they came up with seemed like a reject from the Incredible Hulk live action movie.
The animation, a mixture of 2D and 3D renderings, was pretty good but not outstanding. A character like Doctor Strange is supposed to fill viewers with awe and wonderment. He's a magician after all. What he does is supposed to be contrary to the natural order of things. There wasn't any part of this film where I though "Now that was cool!" or was really impressed. The battle scenes seemed like recycled anime sequences and the magic usage was pretty tame and run of the mill.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 1.78:1 1080p image looked fine at first glance, but had a problem or two. When you first see the picture it looks fine. The lines are tight, the colors are bright and there isn't any mosquito noise in the backgrounds. The problem with the disc is that there's a lot of banding throughout the show. From the sky to the lights in a hospital operating room, the colors don't change as smooth as they should. I'm probably doing viewers a disservice by mentioning it, since once I noticed it I couldn't stop seeing this defect in every other scene.
There were a couple of instances were the contrast was a little off, and the background had some very light pixilation once or twice. Aliasing wasn't a problem however. Not a horrible image at all and a generally nice looking show that is unfortunately marred by excessive banding.
Okay, this disc comes with a DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio soundtrack, which is really cool, but there aren't any Blu-ray players (to my knowledge) that can decode this format, which is really lame. If you select this option the audio will be sent out as a 5.1 DTS track. There's also a DD 5.1 track, and both sounded pretty good. I viewed the film with the DTS track enabled (and spot checked the other track) and while I wasn't blown away by the sound I was very pleased. All six speakers get a good workout with the rear really kicking in during the battle scenes. The directionality is good too, with sounds coming from all four corners of the room. While the battle scenes had a lot of impact and in-your-face effects the rest of the movie also had good audio effects. From the light footsteps of someone walking down the hall seemingly on one side of the room to the wind blowing in the mountains of Tibet, this was a nice sounding disc.
The disc includes some nice extras, the same ones presented on the SD disc, but these are in HD. It starts out with the cinematics from the video games Marvel Ultimate Alliance and X-men Legends 2. Viewers can watch a "best of" reel (3 minutes) which is pretty impressive, or all the cut scenes from those two games. This was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. These CGI animated heroes look great and the action is pretty intense at times. All in all these are a lot of fun.
The Origins of Doctor Strange is a 14 minute featurette where comic book creators Stan Lee, Steve Englehart, and J. M. DeMatteis along with the creators who worked on this film talk about Strange, his origins and his impact on comics and popular media. It's great to hear these guys talk about their work and I truly enjoyed it.
There's also a "first look" at Avengers Reborn, Marvel's next animated project. In this the creators talk about the project and show some preliminary line art. They are trying to get people excited about the project, and they failed miserably. It sounds really bad. Apparently it's based on a set of new heroes, the children of the Avengers. After Ultron kills all of the original Avengers, their offspring have to defeat the unstoppable robot. The first question I asked myself was this: If you want to tell an Ultron story, why don't you tell the story from Avengers 54 and 55 that introduces Ultron (and features the Masters of Evil: Klaw, Whirlwind, Melter and the Radioactive Man.) Why do they feel the need to reinvent a character each time they bring him or her to the small screen? But I digress...
The disc is rounded out by a reel of conceptual art and trailers for the previously released animated shows Ultimate Avengers 2 and The Invincible Ironman.
Easily the best of the Marvel direct-to-video animated movies released so far, Doctor Strange had a great origin story but fell in other parts. The show lacked the WOW factor that it should have had, and they added some pretty stupid plot points just because they could. While this doesn't come close to the best Doctor Strange comics, it was generally fun to watch. I just wish they had tightened the script up a bit and didn't try to "re-imagine" the character. Fans of Marvel comics can get this without having to worry too much. A light recommendation.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.