Doctor Strange ★★★½

Being a Doctor Strange fan, I was hoping for a decent B-grade flick and instead got, say, a surprising A-minus. It's not in the top tier of Marvel films (the first two CAPTAIN AMERICA films and the last half of THE AVENGERS), but it's in that tier just below it where you find rock-solid entertainments like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY or the first IRON MAN.

The film, for the most part, has a pleasantly wry sense of humour tempered with real pathos - mostly because the film explicitly concerns itself with the fear of death and the search for meaning as motivators for most of the primary characters. It also distinguishes itself visually from most of the other Marvel films rapidly; everybody concerned that the film would abandon the strange otherworldly landscapes Steve Ditko innovated in the comics need not worry, because they are definitely present.

Performances are all decent. Bandicoot Cabbagepatch is very good as Strange. Benedict Wong, as Wong, is a good Wong; Chiwetel Ejiofor gives Mordo an interesting inflexible paladin attitude, and Rachel McAdams as the former love interest gets some good scenes. Mads Mikkelsen is serviceable enough as the villain.

Of course, the film's whitewashing of the Ancient One remains problematic. Tilda Swinton is predictably good in the role and she does help drag the movie away, sort of, from the Orientalism that pervades the original comic origins, but not quite enough, and she really is very, very white. And it is a problem, and people who won't be able to get past it will have a fair complaint.

But: beyond that, the movie works really well. It's visually adept and innovative on a level few blockbusters can manage, it has a good sense of fun, it isn't afraid to let magic be magical, and the resolution of the film's climax is both character-appropriate and relatively rare in films of this sort.

Bottom line: it's really good.

***

2017 UPDATE: Okay, post-initial-theatrical high? It's not THAT good. It's a better-than-serviceable Marvel flick to be sure, it definitely has visual flair out the yin-yang, and it follows the Howard Hawks rule of What Makes a Good Movie: "three good scenes, no bad scenes." And it has at least one moment that lingers (Tilda Swinton's last scene, of course).

But it falls into the same category as films like, say, ANT-MAN: it knows that it has to be About Something, but it's not really *about* that thing, it's just making an effort to not be entirely disposable. In ANT-MAN the thing was "fathers will do anything for their daughters" and here it's "death is scary but we can't allow our fear of it to dominate us," and those are both good starting points for a story, but this film, like ANT-MAN, doesn't really explore the ramifications of those ideas deeply enough or passionately enough. Instead, it's a wirehanger upon which to hang a fairly straightforward, A-to-B-to-C plot, so that the characters have at least the semblance of an emotional journey alongside their plot-oriented journey.

Which makes for a decent enough entertainment, but that approach generally puts a ceiling on how good a movie can actually be.