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People Are Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch
Walt Disney Studios
 115 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Doctor Strange

The late Alan Rickman was a wonderful actor who never lacked for worked, but who never quite made the breakthrough from character work to leading man status. There were two main reasons he never made the jump. First, he got a late start, both in acting in general, and in not making the transition from stage to screen until he was already in his 40’s. Second, and even more important, when he got his big break, he was so good in the part, a smug, arrogant, highly intelligent villain in Die Hard, that much of his later career consisted of variations on that role.


This generation’s Alan Rickman is Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor equally as talented and equally as good at playing someone who knows he’s the smartest person in the room and isn’t afraid to let others know. He excelled as Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing and has been able to avoid being typecast as a villain. But he still hasn’t had the one breakthrough leading man role. Until now that is, and, of all thing’s it’s as a relatively little known comic book superhero in the eponymous Doctor Strange. It’s no surprise that Cumberbatch is excellent in the role. What is a bit of a surprise is that the movie is the best comic book film of the year and one of the best “serious” Marvel adaptations to date.


Unlike most Marvel superheroes, Doctor Stephen Strange doesn’t come by his powers through technology or as a result of a scientific accident, but rather by mastering the ancient arts of magic and the occult. He’s a world-renowned neurosurgeon who is as arrogant as he is gifted. His world comes crashing down when he’s badly injured in a car crash, following which his hands are nearly useless. Strange refuses to give into his injuries and pursue a teaching or research career but, instead, soon discovers a similar case to his own, that of Jonathan Pangborn, a paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt), who mysteriously regained the use of his legs.


Pangborn directs Strange to Nepal, where he is taken in by a mystic known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange begins studying the mystic arts and, after several considerable initial doubts, becomes quite adept. He soon finds his growing powers put to the test by Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), who, in the film’s first scene, steals some pages from a sacred text and intends to use them to summon an all-powerful demon from a dark dimension. Don’t worry if this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Doctor Strange is the sort of movie where all you have to know is that there are powerful human bad guys and an even more powerful inhuman bad guy lurking around, and that they do battle with Strange and the other good guys, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as another disciple, Mordo.


And the battles in Doctor Strange are truly amazing. Director Scott Derrickson obviously decided that he didn’t want to follow the usual Marvel playbook and simply have characters knock down buildings willy nilly. Instead, the fight sequences (like the one in the scene below) are a mixture of martial arts and mind-bending reality warps, the likes of which haven’t been seen since a similarly bizarre visual experience, Inception.


Needless to say, Doctor Strange is that rare film for which 3D is more than a gimmick to throw a few gotchas at the audience. Here, the Disney effects people have created an Escher-like environment to emphasize that the standard rules of physics and the law of gravity simply do not apply. Further, the effects work is integral to the film itself. The characters have to maneuver their way through and around this other-worldly environment, and the fight scenes are staged from a dazzling variety of points of view. While other superhero films up the ante in terms of effects work simply by destroying larger objects more and more often, the emphasis here isn’t on destruction (although there is plenty of that) but on bending and stretching reality.


Take away the special effects, and, as you might guess, the resulting dialogue and plot are stuffed full of mystical hokum about Dark Dimensions, Sanctums, and the like. But, if you’re going to dish out hokum and call it a storyline, it helps to have the right actors doing the dishing. Doctor Strange benefits from an excellent cast, foremost among which is Benedict Cumberbatch. He has always been a bit, well, strange, in most of his performances, but he gives the film the emotional weight it needs, first, in the scenes in which his life falls apart following his injury, and second, while struggling to learn arcane lore.


The casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One was somewhat controversial, since the character is an elderly Oriental man in the comic books. Unfortunately, since the good doctor first appeared on the scene in 1963, the trope of the wise Oriental elder training the younger Occidental student has been borrowed and parodied countless times, from Kung Fu to Star Wars to The Karate Kid. Casting Swinton, whose offbeat appearance and acting style have led to her being cast in other androgynous roles before, actually adds a layer of unreality and other-worldliness to the movie and makes the magic more universal by incorporating elements of Celtic mythology as well.


A film like Doctor Strange runs the risk of becoming too campy for its own good, and the filmmakers ground it primarily through the use of humor. This is one of the funnier Marvel films, far more amusing than some of the somber Avengers encounters. More important, the film doesn’t try to milk its mystic content for laughs, so that it becomes another Guardians of the Galaxy. Instead, the jokes flow at the expense of the human foibles and pratfalls of its characters, not the least of whom is Strange himself, whose character is in good need of a dose of humility every now and then.


For all of Disney’s technical expertise and the by-now billions of dollars spent on special effects in the various Marvel films they’ve made, Doctor Strange may be the best in that regard, and, if not, certainly the most eye opening. Combine that with a first-rate cast that takes their roles seriously and a script that takes its central premise seriously as well, all the while throwing in plenty of side humor, and it’s not strange at all to realize that this is one of the best action films of the year.

In this scene, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on Mads Mikkelsen and his followers.

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Doctor Strange (2016) on IMDb