Back in 1963, Marvel’s Stan Lee and Steve Ditko cheekily introduced Doctor Strange “quietly and without fanfare” as “a different kind of super-hero.” 53 years later, Marvel Studios has embraced that difference to make the “master of the mystic arts” a welcome addition to the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe. Doctor Strange leads us on a magical mystery tour that’s both familiar and…strange.
Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon marked by “stubbornness, arrogance, ambition.” When an accident afflicts his hands with nerve damage, Strange loses his grip not only on his scalpel but his sense of self. His search for healing leads him to Kathmandu and a secret temple called Kamar-Taj, presided over by the powerful sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Her trusted charge Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells Strange, “Forget everything you think you know,” good preparation for the mandala of mystical wisdom about to blossom before him. The Ancient One instructs Strange in the true nature of our infinite multiverse, including an astral dimension, mirror dimension, and (uh oh) dark dimension. Naturally, that last bit proves entirely too tempting to the story’s villain, The Ancient One’s wayward former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) presides over this epic adventure with a sure hand. In many ways, it’s superhero boilerplate: an origin story (with more than a little in common with the dramatic trajectory of Iron Man), super-charged fight scenes, and a race to save the world. But Doctor Strange looks at urban architecture through a twisting digital kaleidoscope, next-stepping from Inception to an M.C. Escher-esque action aesthetic that amounts to three-dimensional chess. Given that the film also briefly evokes the mind-bending of 2001: A Space Odyssey as its hero learns to elevate his mind and deepen his spirit, Doctor Strange delivers the goods of dazzling spectacle that have become the guaranteed currency of modern moviegoing. The special effects artistry here indeed qualifies as special, bolstered by 3D that feels necessary to the experience (and this movie must be a heck of a thing in IMAX 3D).
None of that would matter a whit without a certain amount of compelling characterization. Cumberbatch turns in a smart, centered performance, and he’s well supported by a skilled ensemble (also including Rachel McAdams as surgeon/love interest Christine Palmer and Benedict Wong as librarian sorcerer Wong). Above all, Doctor Strange overcomes its genre clichés by winningly exploiting pop psychology and New Age spirituality, particularly in identifying “fear of death” as the ultimate motivator (Kaecilius identifies time as “the true enemy of us all”).
Unsurprisingly, the successful launch of Doctor Strange also serves to prime audiences for upcoming Marvel adventures (mostly by use of the mid-credits and post-credits bonus scenes). As the credits promise, “Doctor Strange will return,” and I have a feeling audiences will be happy to see him again.
Disney delivers an outstanding Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition set, with truly amazing A/V and a wealth of entertaining bonus features. Although Doctor Strange was not shot with 3D cameras (the 3D version was created using post-production conversion), the 3D presentation is the way to go for those with 3D viewing capability at home. This is a film with wow-factor visuals, and the 3D only amplifies the film's ability to carry the viewer away on Strange's journey into magic. The 3D version succeeds both in enhancing a feeling of depth to everyday reality (with what I like to call the ViewMaster effect, separating foreground and background elements) and in punching up the special-effects sequences. The opening sequence is an excellent example, as buildings speedily shift and rotate as fighters dance around them. Reflective surfaces pop in 3D, like the windows of those buildings, mirrors, and, later in the film, flying glass when the action gets rowdy. People and objects (including Strange's cape) also go flying and flailing and falling (and rising) in the action sequences, engaging the 3D effect in exciting manners, approaching visual depth from different angles befitting the story's "which way is up?" sensibility.
The regular Blu-ray HD transfer is also excellent, showing the same sharpness of detail and texture, the same vibrant color. Obviously, depth is not the 2D transfer's forte, especially relatively speaking, but those who either can't watch or would prefer not to watch the 3D version won't be disappointed in the 2D picture. As for the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, it's a state-of-the-art, reference quality presentation, blistering in the action sequences (from the rockin-LFE of the architecture-rumbling opening to a car crash to the multitude of magical effects and fights) and both full and subtle in delivering dialogue and music and directional effects within the surround-soundfield.
All of the set's bonus features can be found on the Blu-ray disc, including the audio commentary with director Scott Derrickson. Derrickson does a fine job talking up the production's history and his approach to the material, generally and scene by scene, as he learned to work within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
"Production Feature" (58:05 with "Play All" option, HD) gathers five featurettes with interview clips of writer-director Scott Derrickson, producers Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso, Stephen Broussard, and Charles Newirth, production designer Charles Wood, costume designer Alex Byrne, composer Michael Giacchino, special effects supervisors Stephane Ceretti and Paul Corbould, and actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, and Scott Adkins. "A Strange Transformation" (9:42, HD) amounts to a broad making-of, adding that titular focus on Cumberbatch stepping into the cape. "Strange Company" (12:37, HD) hones in on the supporting players. "The Fabric of Reality" (12:32, HD) looks at costume and production design. "Across Time and Space" (13:21, HD) gets into practical and special effects, especially when it comes to the film's fight choreography. "The Score-Cerer Supreme" (9:51, HD) profiles composer Michael Giacchino and his work on the score.
"Marvel Studios Phase 3 Exclusive Look" (7:28, HD) gets into the Marvel Studios approach to the MCU, how Doctor Strange fits into the grander scheme, and where "Phase 3" is headed.
"Team Thor: Part 2" (4:38, HD) is a comical short film depicting Thor in quieter times, with his roommate Darryl.
Five "Deleted & Extended Scenes" (7:52 with "Play All" option, HD) comprise "Strange Meets Daniel Drumm," "Kaecilius Searches for Answers," "The Kamar-Taj Courtyard," "Making Contact," and "Lost in Kathmandu."
Rounding out the Blu-ray disc's extras is the "Gag Reel" (4:12, HD). Oddly, while there is a trailer included for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, we don't get the Doctor Strange trailer included here for posterity.
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