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BWW Review: DOCTOR STRANGE Defies the Odds

Despite all of its efforts to fail, DOCTOR STRANGE succeeds. The new offering from Marvel Studios has been dogged by controversy over its casting and criticism for its early publicity stills and trailer. The casting is as bad as you thought it would be. The film as a whole may surprise you.

Scott Derrickson directs the sci-fi superhero film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as superstar neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange. After a life-changing incident, he travels to the East in search of answers. He finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a centuries old sorceress well-versed in the mystic arts and her loyal apprentice Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an understanding, patient, protective mentor and supporter of the doctor at Kamar-Taj. After a scant amount of reticence, he takes to sorcery, quickly becoming a master magician and ultimately responsible for saving the free world from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One whose disillusionment with The Ancient One and misreading of the sacred texts has led him down the path of evil.

In between action scenes, Strange finds the time to build his muscles and his relationship with former lover and current friend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a fellow surgeon who sees past Strange's flashy facade of confidence, staying by his side during his darkest times. Much like Dr. Palmer, you'll like Dr. Strange. Sure, his self-centeredness keeps you at a distance. But underneath this you can see his capacity for compassion and service to mankind. It's just a matter of time before he matures into a great man. And his existing charms indicate that he's worth the wait.

The film opens with Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. She's a force to be reckoned with, mysteriously hooded. But it's hard to enjoy when you consider that Swinton has stolen a role that rightfully belongs to an Asian performer. On top of this, DOCTOR STRANGE largely draws from Asian philosophy, fashion, and culture. And yet there are few Asian faces. And even those are in the background. The result is a film with an air of orientalism.

Why so serious, you ask? Allow iconic science fiction actor George Takei to explain --

To those who say, 'She an actress, this is fiction,' remember that Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can't keep pretending there isn't something deeper at work here. If it were true that actors of Asian descent were being offered choice roles in films, these arguments might prevail. But there has been a long standing practice of taking roles that were originally Asian and rewriting them for white actors to play, leaving Asians invisible on the screen and underemployed as actors. This is a very real problem, not an abstract one. It is not about political correctness, it is about correcting systemic exclusion. Do you see the difference?

You should see a difference. If you don't, you will. DOCTOR STRANGE is good enough to stand the test of time. But, inevitably, our grandchildren will find it when exploring the Marvel oeuvre. They'll cringe at the orientalism and ask, how could the generation before them create something so shameful?

Co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill claims he and the production company whitewashed the Tibetan character to avoid alienating China. Sad. As is, The Ancient One is intriguing. There's more to her than meets the eye and she diverges enough from tropes about women leaders to produce an interesting, full character. Played by any actor worth her salt, like Swinton, the character shines. Had anyone -- Marvel, producer Kevin Feige, screenwriters Cargill or Jon Spaihts, director Scott Derrickson -- had any chutzpah, the controversy would be non-existent. Instead they created the a modern-day version of THE GOOD EARTH. The 1937 film featured the principle actors in yellowface. For her performance as O-Lan, the Academy awarded Luise Rainer an Oscar for Best Actress.

Nonetheless, once you meet Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), you'll fall in love. Though arrogant and self-interested, he is affable enough to sweep you off your feet. The same could be said for the film itself. However, the speed with which Dr. Strange, a major skeptic, believes in magic and masters magic is a strength and a weakness. At times, his speedy progression stretches believability. On the other hand, because Strange reaches enlightenment in so little time, the film avoids the fate of FANTASTIC FOUR. You'll find yourself curious, but it's better to be curious than bored.

The special effects are strong in spite of DOCTOR STRANGE's trippiness. It is a post-MATRIX movie, so the effects, while fun, don't ring as innovative, cutting edge, unique. The same can be said for the fight and movement choreography. It's hard to standout after fellow Marvel film CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, but action scenes, especially Swinton's, don't disappoint.

In the end, DOCTOR STRANGE rises above its flaws. But a good movie doesn't necessarily render a popular hero (just as a bad movie doesn't necessarily render an unpopular character). Hopefully, audiences will take to it and we'll be able to enjoy the Strange series for years to come.

DOCTOR STRANGE in theaters nationwide on November 4. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton. Official Trailer: 115 min.

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout and an intense crash sequence.

Tilda Swinton is the Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch is Dr. Strange, a brilliant surgeon fallen from grace, in DOCTOR STRANGE.

The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) instructs Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the Mystic Arts at Kamar-Taj in DOCTOR STRANGE.

Rachel McAdams is Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange's close friend and colleague, in DOCTOR STRANGE.

Rachel McAdams and Benedict Cumberbatch in DOCTOR STRANGE.

Mads Mikkelsen is Kaecilius, a misguided former student of The Ancient One in DOCTOR STRANGE.

Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in DOCTOR STRANGE. Ejiofor is Mordo, a Kamar-Taj acolyte who takes Dr. Strange under his wing.

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in DOCTOR STRANGE.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in DOCTOR STRANGE

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