“So Earth has wizards now?” -Thor
As the Marvel movie universe expands exponentially, Kevin Feige and the gang have reached a point where they need to start throwing wrenches into their works. The formula is feeling increasingly familiar. The heroes are increasingly similar. It’s all getting a bit samey. So thankfully here comes Doctor Strange, a movie that might not reinvent the Marvel movie, but at least serves up eye candy unlike anything else in superhero blockbusters right now. Even if this is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite Marvel movie, the fact that Scott Derrickson has delivered something that feels fresh in the franchise is something of a minor miracle.
So, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the new wise-cracking rogue. This time he’s a super arrogant super surgeon. Kind of like Tony Stark with a scalpel. Unfortunately he ends up in a car accident that claims the dexterity in his famous hands. Desperate for a miracle cure, he travels the globe and eventually finds his way to the doorstep of Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One. Along with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s fairly thankless sidekick role, they open up the good doctor’s third eye to a wider world of Marvel magic never seen before. Along the way, Strange learns of an evil villainous force led by Mad Mikkelsen in CGI-enhanced eyeliner who is bent on world destruction. That means that Strange will need to master his dimension-hopping magical powers quickly to put a stop to the baddies. Along the way, he may also win the heart of Rachel McAdams’ tiresome “girlfriend at home” who will hopefully have more to do in further chapters.
Yep, on the one hand this is yet another superhero origin story the likes of which you have seen too many times before. You know, one of those movies where a sarcastically hilarious nincompoop learns to be selfless by becoming more powerful than he ever imagined. It’s the same old thing, but the new world of magic to add a little somethin’ somethin’ to the populist equation. Cumberbatch is as oddly charismatic as expected, even if he needs a little time to settle into his American accent. Tilda Swinton is predictably fantastic in her Yoda-esque role, being all enigmatic and ass-kicking in the ways she does oh-so-well. Mikkelson has one of those typically thin Marvel villain roles to play, but he’s such a naturally imposing and immensely entertaining screen presence that he overcomes the limitations of the screenplay. As for Ejiofor and McAdams? They are overqualified and underused, hopefully with larger roles in inevitable crossovers and sequels to justify their space in the MCU.
You get what you expect from Doctor Strange on a certain level, including plenty of sardonic humour crammed in (apparently from an employed-at-the-last-minute Dan Harmon no less). However, where Doctor Strange really takes off is in the mysticism and spectacle. As is the Marvel way, directing duties fell into the affordable hands of an indie filmmaker. In this case Scott Derrickson got the call after making a name for himself with horror movies like Sinister and The Exorcism Of Emily Rose that were far better than they had to be. Derrickson has always been a fairly overt spiritual filmmaker, clearly taking the mysticism and gentle sprinkling of Eastern philosophy quite seriously here and even tossing in at least one cheeky Christian metaphor for good measure. In fact, this might be the one Marvel movie in which the comedy is somewhat unwelcome because the mythology is so intriguing and….well….trippy.
The selling points of Doctor Strange are the masterfully surreal and mind-bending magic imagery that Derrickson and an army of digital artists delivered. The original Doctor Strange comics were an outlet for artist Steve Ditko to dabble in the type of psychedelic imagery that was all the rage at the time and kept hippies returning to the Marvel racks. The way Derrickson applies that 60s mind-bending to the digital age is jaw-dropping, with the Inception-style city bending shown off in the trailers only being the beginning. The kaleidoscopic surrealism on display is the sort of thing that wasn’t even technically possible back in the Iron Man days and could only be deployed in a blockbuster with these considerable resources. There are a number of stunner sequence, almost impossible to describe. If Doctor Strange brings this sort of comic book imagery to every movie he graces with his cape, this guy is a welcome new focus in the MCU. That doesn’t mean the movie is a masterpiece. It’s still flawed in all the ways Marvel movies are. However, Scott Derrickson and co. have proven there are still tricks left in this old war horse and even that qualifies as a pleasing surprise bordering on rousing success. Bring on Phase Three.
As usual, Disney have delivered this Marvel blockbuster on Blu-ray with a showpiece disc designed to drop jaws and kick ass. The images are crystal clear in all of their surrealistic mind-bending glory and very much worth ogling in HD with an optional dribble cup. The soundtrack is equally magnificent, filling speakers with strange (zing!) sounds and music designed to command a living room. This is a gorgeous disc and one that serves up genuinely unique eye candy that’s worth the stunning presentation.
As for special features, well thankfully there’s a bit more meat on this disc than some of the recent Marvel releases (thank god!). First up comes a roughly hour long documentary about the film broken up into five bite-sized chunks. It covers everything from the casting through to post production and serves as an entertaining overview of the importance of the good doctor in the Marvel universe and why all the specific players were chosen for this project. It’s an entertaining doc, but unfortunately one that whisks along so damn quickly that there’s never much opportunity for anyone to delve into details about how they conceived and designed the beautifully bizarre images in the movie beyond lip service to wanting to offer audiences “things they haven’t seen before”. So that’s a bit of a let down.
Next up, MCU cross promotion jumps in. First up is an 8-minute preview of the Phase 3 films that are currently on Marvel’s production slate. It doesn’t tell fans anything that they don’t already know, but it does so with such a pounding musical score and rapid-fire editing that you’ll somehow feel excited about hearing the same sound bites again. Far more enjoyable is a the five minute Team Thor: Part 2, a sequel to the popular ‘Thor on downtime’ mockumentary that Taika Waititi screened at Comic Con last year. It’s cute and funny and playful and shows Thor at a public school (which is even better than it sounds) and over before the joke wears thin. So what more you could you want?
The usual crop of “scenes deleted for a reason” and outtakes fill out the special features and they are all fairly disposable. Thankfully, there is a commentary track to add a little more in depth analysis to the disk. Scott Derrickson pops up for a commentary track and he’s always worth listening too. A lifelong fan of Doctor Strange, Derrickson delves into his fascination with the character, his goals for the film, and how he dreamed up the unique mixture of acid-trip visuals and spiritual awakenings. The track hits on all of the big beats of the disc’s docs, but gets into more personal reflection and details about the execution that will help fill in the blanks for those who care. Derrickson is always a passionate and engaging commentary track host, so it’s a treat and rounds out one of the better Blu-rays that Marvel has put out in the past few years.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
If you’re one of those people who have yet to give up on physical media (I believe we’re called “collectors” as well as a variety of far less flattering names), then do not let this one pass you by. It’s worth the dollars and nerdery, if only for the gloriously bizarre eye-nourishment.