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Trippy visuals highlight Benedict Cumberbatch's Marvel debut
Loves: Marvel movies, visual spectacles
Likes: Dr. Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch
Dislikes: Rachel McAdam's wasted role
Hates: Unnecessarily broad humor in a superhero film
Doctor Strange has never been a household name like his Marvel brethren, even if attempts to put him in the mass-media spotlight have been made (embarrassingly.) He's had his moments, but there aren't a great deal of "classic" stories in his canon, and his rogues gallery is pretty weak in comparison to a Spider-Man. However, as a hero who works in the realm of magic and the cosmos at large, Doctor Strange is very important to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's upcoming Infinity War, so it was time to establish him as a character. Instead of bringing him in as just another Avenger however, Marvel Studios decided to go all in and make him the star of his own film, handing the reins to horror writer/director Scott Derrickson (Sinister).
Of course, it's a lot easier to take that risk when you've got an international star like Benedict Cumberbatch on board to play the Sorcerer Supreme. The casting of Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange is ridiculously perfect, as he has just the right mix of smarm, charm and gravitas to play a surgeon who loses it all due to his hubris, and turns to mysticism to heal his broken body and soul. Though his role in Star Trek: Into Darkness certainly suggested he could succeed at big-screen action, he proves he can pull it off here, doing well with all facets of the character. His take may not break any new ground for the master of the mystic arts, hewing closely to the classic comics, but with a character so few know and which has been only lightly interpreted to date, reinventing the wheel wasn't necessary and fidelity was likely the best route.
Doctor Strange is undoubtedly an origin story, which is something of a bold choice, considering how many superhero films skip that chapter, so as to avoid the pitfalls that accompany it. However, considering how complicated Doctor Strange's storyline can get (not to mention what lies ahead with the Infinity War), it makes a lot of sense to provide a solid backstory to build off of. That Strange's origin is a good story unto itself doesn't hurt, as he pursues redemption, with the superheroic, action-oriented portion tying tightly into that quest.
The film is loaded to the gills with top-end acting talent, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Strange's fellow sorcerer Baron Mordo, Mads Mikkelsen's fundamentalist villain Kaecilius, and Rachel McAdams, who has the misfortune of playing the least developed character, Strange's colleague and semi-love interest Christine (who, as comic fans know, has the potential to play a bigger role.) As with many of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, villainy here isn't simply a matter of a desire for world domination, which complicates matters a bit and makes for a more engaging storyline, and makes the dynamic between Strange and Mordo one of the most interesting and fleshed-out in the Marvel franchise.
Of course, there is the issue of The Ancient One, portrayed here by Tilda Swinton. Now, in the comic books, The Ancient One was an aged Tibetan man who helped Strange succeed him as the Sorcerer Supreme. Well, that wasn't going to work for the film, for a few reasons--both socially and financially--so a change was needed. Adding another strong female character was a good idea, but there was a real concern that if the Ancient One was an Asian woman, that it would introduce another unwanted stereotype.
In the end, in an attempt to satisfy a number of conflicting audiences, the decision was made to make the Ancient One a woman with a Celtic background. Is it a cop-out? Perhaps. Are all decisions in film ideal and made in a vacuum without concern for the box office? Certainly not. Could there be more big roles for Asian actors? Obviously. But at the least, there are no obviously embarrassing stereotypes at play in this film (particularly as Benedict Wong's character Wong got a transformation from a comic-relief sidekick role) and Swinton is excellent as usual as the conflicted guide to Dr. Strange.
Though the cast is simply great and Derrickson's big-league coming-out party has him going full-bore behind the keyboard and camera, this film gets its true power from the special effects. While the Marvel superhero films have always been visual extravaganzas in portraying superpowers (and Doctor Strange is no different, with outstanding depictions of magical energy and weapons), this film depicts the separation between layers of reality with innovative effects that are entrancing in building on influences like M.C. Escher and Inception and taking effects blowouts to a whole new level. The big action sequences are gorgeous to behold, especially around the climax, a series of scenes that are delightfully satisfying in terms of action, spectacle, character and plot culmination.
If anything about the film could/should be changed, it would be the forced comedy elements. Marvel films always tend to have a humorous tone to them in places, but it usually emerges naturally from the characters (who are often either smartasses or using comedy as a defense mechanism.) In Doctor Strange, Strange's cloak is given an animus and personality, which comes to the fore in one particular scene, and, for a while, the film becomes cartoonish as a result. While the living cloak is a solid addition for several reasons, these obvious grabs for laughter weren't necessary and seem out of place in a film that manages to blend superheroes and philosophy to good effect.
The latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic University arrives on a pair of discs (one Blu-ray, one DVD), packed in a standard-width, dual-hub Blu-ray keepcase, which is wrapped in an embossed holofoil slipcover. The Blu-ray has a subtly-animated menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the languages and checkout the extras. Audio options include English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive, and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks, while subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish and French.
The 1080p, AVC-encoded 2.39:1 transfer has a rather varied playground of visuals to show off, and you'll find no issues amongst them, with all the special effects and reality-warping concepts coming off tremendously well. The film has so much detail happening in many scenes and a high-pace to maintain, yet it never succumbs to Michael Bay Syndrome, with everything remaining identifiable and recognizable, even when traveling through alien dimensions, darker spaces and wild action. The image is stable throughout, with a high level of fine detail where appropriate (the good doctor's world is often cloaked in shadow and translucency, which can result in some softer moments) while color is vibrant where appropriate (the aforementioned darkness really sets off the light-emitting magic on display.) Black levels are deep, though still affected by the film's overall aesthetic, but no one who watches this film is going to complain about how it looks. You will see everything you're supposed to see clearly, particularly the unique visuals of a magical universe.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track on Doctor Strange is excellent all-around, with no weak spots, whether you are listening to a scene of dialogue or a raucous battle, but let's talk about that .1. The low-end on this disc is like nothing I've experienced before. It is the most aggressive demonstration of bass you could ask for, all in support of what's happening on-screen. There are scenes in this film that will legitimately shake your home theater space with the power of the LFE. Thankfully, it's not a matter of quantity over quality, as the mix is finely tuned, with impressive dynamism that creates an enveloping soundscape and the clarity to keep things well separated when the action gets a bit chaotic (the film's big climactic sequence will be one you put on to impress friends and intimidate enemies.)
There's a nice spread of extras to enjoy, kicking off with a brief (1:06) intro to the film from Derrickson, in which he talks about why he made the movie and what he hopes the viewer gets out of it. He returns for an audio commentary, which he recorded the day before the film's premiere, so he had yet to receive any real public feedback on the film. It's a heavily thought-out track, as he discusses the production effort and the theories and themes behind his approach to the film, while talking about some of the effects work and praising his cast and crew. He also talks more about the controversy surrounding The Ancient One, so he gets credit for not ducking that issue on the record. If you care about how films are made and the construction of character and story, Derrickson delivers.
One of the pieces most Marvel fans will be rushing to check out will be the "Marvel Studios Phase 3 Exclusive Look". Running 7:28, it's a brief overview of the next group of films in the series, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Some short clips of set footage and a good deal of concept art are paired with unfortunately brief words from filmmakers Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler and the Russo Brothers, along with the writers of Infinity War. There's talk of the Marvel production process and what each movie means to the overall storyline, but the real appeal is the brief, teasing clip at the end.
For a look behind the scenes, there's a quintet of featurettes, which run a combined 58:05 and can be viewed together or separately. "A Strange Transformation" (9:48) suffers from going first, as a third of the piece serves as an intro to the overall collection of featurettes, before getting into the character and its history and how it was modernized for the fim. Derrickson, Cumberbatch, Swinton, Mikkelsen, Ejiofor and Wong, along with other members of the crew, sit down to talk about the film, the experience and the characters. "Strange Company" (12:37) focuses on the supporting cast and the director, including talk about The Ancient One, and what the award-winning actors brought to the production.
"The Fabric of Reality" (12:32) looks at the costumes and set design, as well as the film's locations, as the discuss the cloak and how to adapt the comic book designs to a live-action film and a realistic world. Then, "Across Time and Space" (13:21) covers the stunt and fight choreography (including details and an intriguing demonstration of "tutting") and the special effects, including the theories and comic-book influences behind the effects. The final part is the punastically-titled "The Score-cerer Supreme" (9:51) which includes an interview with composer Michael Giacchino, who talks about the various musical themes for the film, and a look at a scoring session. Like any Marvel production, stick around after the credits, for the most meta extra ever.
There are five deleted/extended scenes to watch (7:52), which can be viewed as a group or on their own. There's some additional beats here that were likely removed for pacing (or to trim the violence) but one, involving Doctor Strange and a dog, was smartly removed to make buy time for Strange's redemption.
A follow-up to the popular "Team Thor" short associated with Captain America: Civil War offers more of the god and his earthly roommate Darryl (4:38). It's amusing, but nowhere near as funny as the first entry, as it hits some of the same beats, but feels like the deleted scenes that were left behind.
A gag reel (4:12) gives you the chance to see the very serious Cumberbatch and Swinton goof around, along with some effects silliness, plenty of flubs and a shot of Sherlock flipping the bird. You also get to see the fake name the film was shot under.
Wrapping things up are a trio of sneak peeks, with promos for the mobile games Contest of Champions and Future Fight, along with the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2.
Also included is a code for a digital copy of the film (which now takes the unnecessary form of a card, glued to a larger card, with the whole magilla in shrinkwrap.)
The arrival of Doctor Strange marks a very different chapter of the Marvel movie saga, even if the film feels very similar in its construction and rhythms to the superhero films that came before. As a result, it's a crowd-pleaser, while offering a bit of something new, powered by an all-star cast and incredible visual effects. On Blu-ray, it looks and sounds fantastic, while a nice amount of extras should satisfy fans on several fronts. Marvel die-hard will have to own this one, while even the curious who don't like masks and tights should find something to enjoy in the mystical world of Doctor Strange.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.