Film Fangirl: ‘Doctor Strange’ excels in visual effects; languishes under whitewashing

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Doctor Stephen Strange — a rich, white man — comes to Nepal, is disrespectful to the mystical ways of Kamar-Taj, and subsequently masters magic faster than any of the Asian pupils. Sure, Marvel. Sure.

“Doctor Strange” is the latest offering in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It features Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange, a genius neurosurgeon in the league of Tony Stark when it comes to the ego department. Strange strives to be the best in what he does, saving patients’ lives without any real regard for them. But one night on his way to a speaking engagement, Strange is distracted while looking at medical documents and ends up in a severe car accident that leaves his hands trembling and useless, effectively ending his career.

For many people, reaching such a crossroads effects some sort of change, hopefully for the good. But Strange refuses to accept what western medicine cannot heal. Following a tip, he sets off for eastern lands to Kamar-Taj, where he finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Under her watchful eye, Strange encounters a mystical world, where parallel universes are without end. Of course, there’s also a villain to be discovered — Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One with a dark purpose.

“Doctor Strange” is an extravaganza of magic, a power that has yet to truly be explored in any of the other twelve Marvel films. Instead of powered suits and super soldiers, we get to see new worlds open up before our eyes as sorcerers battle with golden sigils and buildings bending and twisting around them. The visual effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen and will likely draw comparisons with “Inception” and “The Matrix.”

The action sequences are excellently done and never feel burdened by the special effects. They feel as fresh and energetic as the plot, easily jumping from one moment to another. The hand-to-hand combat feels flat at times, but the magic fights easily smooths everything over.

Cumberbatch owns his role as Strange, bringing a perfect blend of arrogance and awe to the proceedings. He is an everyman character, showing all of the confusion at the strange things he witnesses that any of us would.

It’s unfortunate that this confusion and the subsequent training scenes are cut short in the film. Strange masters his powers so quickly that another character inevitably mentions that he seems destined for this. You don’t say.

Swinton brings her usual uncanniness to the Ancient One, and she cuts with ease between incredible wisdom, sharp humor and the sorrow of the ages. But while Swinton excels, Marvel’s decision to whitewash an originally Asian character mars the film. Both Marvel and Director Scott Derrickson have defended the casting multiple times, but really, in this day and age, such decisions sound increasingly ridiculous.

Additionally, Kaecilius is another poorly developed Marvel villain. Mikkelsen is known for his incredible turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in “Hannibal,” and to see his talent only teased at here was frustrating.

In spite of these glaring problems, “Doctor Strange” remains an intriguing entry into the MCU. It is not the best Marvel film nor is it the worst. It easily has some of the best special effects of them all. And Cumberbatch is fantastic.

Now if Marvel could just stop adding to the racism in Hollywood, that would be great.

Grade: B+