Is “superhero fatigue” a real thing? You wouldn’t know it from watching Doctor Strange. In my less than stellar review of Netflix’s recent Luke Cage series I bemoaned the way it lazily connected to the existing universe they’ve built and its bloated seeming run time (someone out there agrees with me because the upcoming Defenders series will reportedly only last a tight 8 episodes as opposed to the standard 13) but Marvel’s film division eschews these shortcomings as deftly as nerd hero Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange slings whips and shields out of thin air. Strange (the film) surprisingly, reassuringly carves out as intelligent and sensible a niche as possible for Strange (the character) in the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel proving themselves once again to be the kings of the both faithful and accessible comic adaptation, even when dealing with Stan Lee’s most esoteric and self-indulgent 60’s material.
Truthfully though, the plot itself is a tad simple and somewhat derivative, an early criticism of the film that rings true. You could probably edit together your own fan cut of this film from pieces of Batman Begins, The Matrix, Inception and maybe Interstellar. But it’s the characters, their pathos and purpose, that have always put Marvel a cut above their funny book also rans, and despite the brisk, economic pacing employed here, Cumberbatch in the lead makes you truly feel his journey from arrogant surgeon to sorcerer supreme, in a fraction of the time that it took Tony Stark or Thor to forego their immature selfishness and accept the great responsibility of their great power.
Despite being the effects picture of the year (don’t worry, we’ll get to that), this entire film really is an actor’s showcase. Marvel’s master stroke here is putting ringers like Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen in roles most would consider rote and thankless and watching them work their magic (no pun intended) to make these master, teacher, hero and villain archetypes into flesh and blood humans whose motivations, however initially black and white, emotionally resonate in a way that would be laughed out of the theater in less capable hands
And on the other end of the spectrum, the effects work here is literally the best I’ve ever seen. Anyone even vaguely interested in this needs to go see it in IMAX 3D now. As rewarding as I’m sure the film will be upon multiple viewings, I’m almost looking forward to the inevitable Blu Ray release more for the behind the scenes material, hoping that the “making-of” insights are as generous as they were on the recent Captain America: Civil War disc. The filmmakers make the brilliant decision of limiting the magic abilities to enchanted objects: rings, boots, capes and pendants, to avoid making the fight scenes devolve into endless Dragon Ball Z style wild ridiculous gesticulating.
From the initial fight between Swinton’s Ancient One and Mikkelsen’s traitorous Kaecilius, the fisticuffs are up close and hard hitting, mystical blades, axes and chains clashing in an impressive fireworks display, erasing any notion that magical warfare has to be less than satisfying as in Lord of the Rings’ geriatric wizard battles, or the force lightning lameness of the lesser Star Wars films. And when the sorcerers start bending matter and time all around them, mirroring reality and manipulating the astral plane, of course Inception is the easy, lazy (I just did it a few paragraphs ago) comparison to make, but Strange takes things so much further that I can’t even imagine all the work that went into conceptualizing, planning and executing these sequences.
And that’s the greatest trick of all: Marvel takes its most ancillary, eye roll worthy characters and settings and makes them totally accessible for the layman while also remaining perfectly reverent of decades old source material, creating films as entertaining in their own right as they are perfectly interlocking world and franchise building enterprises. The brilliant fusion of art and commerce that they’ve achieved never stops astounding me, especially as a 90’s kid that survived dumpster fires like the live action Street Fighter and Spawn movies. Those complaining of “superhero fatigue” should probably just shut up and stop trying to ruin it for the rest of us.