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Do you believe in magic? - 'Doctor Strange'

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Latest Marvel film offers incredible visuals, exceptional cast

There's no denying the Hollywood omnipresence of Marvel. The MCU has grown into one of the foundational pieces of the cinematic year, delivering film after film to serve as pieces of an ever-expanding grand narrative.

But while some aspects of the decades-deep source that is Marvel Comics have been explored multiple times over multiple movies, other aspects have been largely absent. Namely, Marvel magic. There's a rich history of supernatural and occult heroes and villains in the comic book world, but Marvel has left that vein essentially untapped.

Until now.

'Doctor Strange' is the MCU's first foray into the weird, telling the story of Marvel's premier supernatural hero, a sorcerer of great power whose powers are devoted to protecting our world from the ever-present darkness lurking just behind the dimensional veil.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, 'Black Mass') is a noted neurosurgeon, considered to be among the very best in the world at what he does. That talent comes with a healthy arrogance as well; his selfishness drives away many of his colleagues, including those such as fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, 'Spotlight') who strive to care about the man beneath the ego-driven surface.

But when a tragic accident leaves Dr. Strange without the proper use of his hands the only true instruments of his talent he spirals down into a depressive abyss. He's willing to follow any rumor, any half-baked story about impossible medical breakthroughsanything that might help him regain what he has lost.

His journey eventually takes him to Kathmandu and a place called Kamar-Taj. It's a training ground of sorts, one in which a mysterious leader known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, 'Hail, Caesar!') teaches acolytes the ways of magic and mysticism. Despite his assorted shortcomings, Strange proves an adept student.

But all is not well. A renegade sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, TV's 'Hannibal') has stolen an ancient spell, one that holds the promise of eternal life for him and doom for the world as we know it. Doctor Strange along with fellow sorcerers Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 'Triple 9') and Wong (Benedict Wong, TV's 'Marco Polo') is tasked with saving our reality from the ravenous greed of the Dark Dimension and its master Dormammu.

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat this is the most visually impressive offering in the MCU to date. And it's not even that close. There are numerous extended sequences some grounded in the more traditional MCU 'realism' and some embracing ethereal, esoteric surreality that are outright stunning to watch. The colors blaze, imbuing extradimensional scenes already kaleidoscopic with an even trippier vibe that is especially impactful in 3D. Long stretches particularly in the astral realm are absolutely mesmerizing.

Seriously the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never looked better.

Another thing? In terms of the top tier, this might be the most talented cast ever assembled (get it?) for a Marvel movie. It's difficult to imagine a better choice for this role than Cumberbatch, who has an uncanny knack for inhabiting and elevating characters that are both brilliant and broken. Doctor Strange is precisely that character; Cumberbatch's performance immediately becomes one of the best any of these films have seen from their leads.

Ejiofor is a massive talent as well; his take on Mordo is a nuanced one that, while a bit different from the source material, will satisfy and even thrill fans of the original. Swinton was a controversial choice for this film, but it should come as no surprise that her innate weird unearthliness plays REALLY well here. Actor Wong turns character Wong into a powerful, engaging character miles away from the unfortunate stereotype from the comic book. And Mikkelsen is one of those rare actors capable of bringing forth an icy evil that allows for a quietly dominant villain, one who owns scenes without being overly emotive.

But neither of those things surprise you, right? If you've seen the trailer, you've seen glimpses of the incredible effects sequences and narrative moments from all of these actors. Even if you don't see just HOW awesome those things are, you have a pretty good idea.

But there are surprises.

For instance, nothing you've seen has prepared you for just how many legitimately funny moments this film has. It isn't all grimdark sorcerer duels and mindbending dimensional voyages and tortured souls there are some solid jokes in here. And they never feel out of place, thanks to a strong script co-written by John Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson (who also directed) and a cast committed to embracing a tone that is part serious, part subversive.

It's also an origin story that mostly avoids the unnecessary exposition that hamstrings so many 'first films.' Narrative engagement happens quickly, but is never rushed or forced; it is simple where it can be simple and complex only when it needs to be. Something as out-there as 'Doctor Strange' almost invites convoluted storytelling, but this film threads the needle deftly.

Director Derrickson's previous feature outings spring mostly from the horror realm movies like 'Sinister' and 'Deliver Us From Evil' which would make him an odd choice for just about any Marvel movie other than this one. He brings that horror aesthetic to bear here, creating something that is true to the MCU spirit while also being very much an outlier. It's a surprisingly effective marriage of film and filmmaker, resulting in one of Marvel's better offerings.

I've long since given up on doubting Marvel and their head honcho Kevin Feige. That said, to my mind, 'Doctor Strange' had the potential to fall flat. It was a new direction in terms of tone and a whole new branch to the grand MCU narrative. It could have misfired. Instead, it is visually rich, powerfully performed and surprisingly fun.

'Doctor Strange' might have been Marvel's worst; instead, it is one of their best.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:29

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