The Thinking Person's Superhero...


Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Robert Wetzel

Vox clamantis in deserto!  For those of you in the Upper Valley, a translation of this desperate cry is not necessary: it is the Dartmouth College motto -- ‘A voice crying in the wilderness’.   And that’s what I feel like going to the movies these days: a voice crying for a decent movie to watch – and to recommend to my loyal readers.  As such, I have been lost in the desert for a couple of weeks.  But fear not!  The holiday and pre-Oscar season is finally upon us and a number of promising films are just over the next sand dune.  Of course, that could just be a mirage…

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In any case, I joined the hungry hordes this weekend and went to see the latest offering from Disney’s Marvel Studios, ‘Dr. Strange’.  As with the excellent ‘Deadpool’, ‘Dr. Strange’ finds Marvel dipping deeply into its treasure trove of comic book characters, and giving us a more interesting superhero than the same old Avengers retread.  And more important, ‘Dr. Strange’ surrounds the main character with strong advocates and adversaries, played by some of the best actors in the business.  This combination of factors delivers a result that is still an action-oriented film with plenty of mayhem, but also a well-acted and thoughtful rumination on life, society, ego and the ongoing conflict between good and evil.  Not a bad night at the theater.

To quickly establish context, the title character is, in fact, a doctor – a brilliant, egotistical neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in an auto accident that is a direct result of his hubris.  Unwilling to believe that the fates would take his gift from him, Strange travels to Katmandu in search of a rumored sect of healers who can do for him through magic what modern medicine cannot.  In the process, he becomes part of a classic battle between the forces of good and evil, with questionable motives on both sides of the battle.  But Strange is always the smartest guy in the room, and with the help of The Ancient One, he becomes the savior of the world by ultimately learning that self-sacrifice is the only sacrifice worth the price.  You’ve seen the plot before; just not presented in this particular way.

What saves this relatively pedestrian plot is the work of the actors.  As Dr. Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect: the thinking person’s antihero turned superhero.  As the egotistical surgeon, we admire the skill while hating the man; and actually feel vindicated when his reckless arrogance makes him a patient in his own hospital.  But if one must reach rock bottom before rising to great heights, Cumberbatch beautifully portrays the conflict of ego and pride v. sacrifice and humility.  As Strange becomes more deeply invested in his persona, his powers threaten to overwhelm his capacity for good, and he is strongly tempted by the forces of evil.  This is a theme we have seen before – Luke Skywalker in ‘Star Wars’ is the standard bearer.  But Cumberbatch’s skills as an actor make the conflict consistently interesting.

As his adversary, the equally skilled Mads Mikkelsen – the best bad guy in the business (well, maybe Christoph Waltz gives him a run for the money) – is the Darth Vader to Strange’s Luke.  Kaecilius is the former student of The Ancient One who has been seduced by evil and seeks to turn to the world itself to the dark side.  To listen to Strange and Kaecilius debate the costs and benefits of good v. evil is the Shakespearean debate that we so longed for the entire election season.  Sure, they are about to face off and blow a bunch of sh— up.  But listening to them discuss why the mayhem is/is not needed is a master class.

On top of this clash of thespian titans, we also get two MORE of the best.  As The Ancient One, a bald Tilda Swinton gives another of the strange-but-wonderful characterizations that have become her trademark.  Preternaturally calm and focused, she is the Yoda of this crew – but with a twist.  Yoda was all good; TAO has a few secrets in her pocket.  And this makes her an even better, more interesting, character.  In addition, we get Chiwetel Ejiofor as Strange’s sidekick.  Some might see this film as a waste of his acting chops.  But as the strong, balancing force to Cumberbatch’s Strange, he provides a very important input into this tangy, tasty stew.

Let me be clear: a Shakespearean debate between outstanding actors notwithstanding, ‘Dr. Strange’ is not ‘Macbeth’.  There is plenty of silliness; lots of explosions; and some (amazing and outstanding) CGI that literally bends the physical reality of time and space.  It can all get a bit tedious.  And the silly persona of Dormammu, the ‘Master of Dark’, is an unnecessary distraction that is enough to have one bursting out laughing – at a very inopportune time in the film.  But it is a film based on a comic book after all: what do you expect?  If you go into ‘Dr. Strange’ with this in mind, you might really enjoy yourself seeing great actors in uncharacteristic roles.  And the best part is that you can have a conversation with your kids – or grandkids – after the film as they explain what was REALLY going on! 

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