Judge Adam Arseneau knows who the real Sorcerer Supreme is: Doctor Byron Orpheus.
The Sorcerer Supreme!
Following in the footsteps of Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, The Ultimate Avengers 2 and The Invincible Iron Man comes Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme, the latest direct-to-DVD animated feature from Marvel Comics, and the latest intellectual property to be grasped firmly between gigantic corporate hands and wrung for every dollar and cent. Luckily, out of all the properties Marvel could have gone fishing for cash with, Doctor Strange works pretty well.
I—hold on…are they fighting with swords on the back cover? What the…?
Facts of the Case
World-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange's skill with the scalpel is matched only by his icy demeanor and arrogance. He picks and chooses his patients with care, bolstering his reputation as a miracle worker of difficult patients. But when an automobile accident leaves his hands crippled, Strange's world falls apart.
Desperate for a therapy, surgery, or cure to recover the dexterity in his mangled appendages, he travels the world and squanders his fortune on every experimental treatment known to man. Eventually left penniless and friendless, he reaches the end of his rope…until a mysterious stranger appears suddenly and offers him a slim hope of chance…in Tibet.
Traveling to a mysterious monastery high in the mountains, Strange becomes a frustrated disciple to the Ancient One, a mystic and powerful magician. Strange is at first aggravated by the mundane tasks in which he is forced to endure, but soon realizes the place defies all logic and reason. Magic is real, and he finds himself in the presence of the most powerful magician of all—the Sorcerer Supreme, tasked with protecting the universe from the evil forces of other worlds. Slowly, Strange becomes enlightened to the mystic arts.
However, a jealous and warlike pupil of the Ancient One, Mordo, holds Strange in contempt, threatened by the favor the Ancient One doles upon his newest student. The Ancient One is growing weaker, and will soon pass into death, and Mordo wants to receive the title of Sorcerer Supreme. Meanwhile, a dark and evil force threatens the Earth, sending monsters and demons to attack New York in an attempt to free Dormammu, the evil one from a prison placed upon him by the Ancient One. It takes all the strength of the Ancient One to keep Dormammu imprisoned , and if he is allowed to escape, it means the end of Earth forever…
As a compelling comic character, Doctor Strange has always been a tricky one to write effective stories for. After all, he's the Sorcerer Supreme, not the Sorcerer Average or the Sorcerer Occasionally Loses a Battle. The dude can literally snap his fingers out of any problem he encounters, no matter how many flaming heads a villain has or alternate dimensions a villain hails from. He's Marvel's deux ex machina device, the guy you call in to fix any irresolvable story plot or out-of-control event after Marvel writes itself into a corner. How then do you write interesting stories for a character so overpowered that he could probably destroy the entire universe on a bad day?
You give him a sword, of course. Everyone can relate to a sword, right?
And so, in this animated adventure, Doctor Strange and his sorcerer companions fight with swords. Magical swords, mind you, but still swords. This twisted logic works in a sense, in that it allows for some cool swordfights, but crumbles easily upon closer examination. These are sorcerers after all, not crazy kung fu monks trained in the mountains of Tibet…oh, wait. I guess that's what they are after all…? Points for style, I'll admit, but comic book purists are no doubt gnawing their arms off as we speak.
Speaking of purists, die-hard fans will note the changes made to Strange's origins are fairly minor. The spirit of the character has been preserved quite well: Strange, the arrogant surgeon who wrecks his hands in an automotive accident; squanders his fortunes searching the world over for a cure, arriving in a mysterious monastery in the mountains of Tibet, where the Ancient One teaches him the mystical arts. It's all here—just modernized and kung-fu-ized. Having been transmogrified out of the 1960s LSD-influenced Silver Age comic origins and thrust into a modern world, it seems sorcerers have become crazy sword-fighting video-game inspired ninjas instead of gentlemanly geezers in blue pajamas who exclaim things like "by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!" at the drop of a hat. Oh well, so be it. Time marches on, etcetera, etcetera.
In animated form, Doctor Strange satisfies on a visceral level, free to abuse all manner of CGI trickery and animated effect that would be laughably and prohibitively expensive in any live-action adaptation (urgh…trying to repress memories of horrible made-for-TV movie adaptation from 1978…okay, it's gone.) The animators make full use of the medium, making Doctor Strange visibly splendid and striking in its action sequences, pitting sword-wielding sorcerers against gigantic horned lizards (invisible gigantic horned lizards, apologies) tearing a path through New York City. Sure, it practically defecates on the source material, but it makes for a helluva good time. The animation style is balanced, borrowing influence from Japanese anime in character design and movement while still remaining identifiably North American in origin.
Overall, Doctor Strange is fun, but nothing groundbreaking or impressive in any meaningful sense. The plot hits all the required canonical points, but doesn't really have a compelling storyline to satisfy repeat viewings. Seasoned comic fans will find just enough action and violence to satisfy their time investment, tempered by the PG-13 rating, which minimizes the on-screen calamity to a few snippets here and there. The show has style aplenty, but rarely elevates itself beyond the level of Saturday morning cartoon in terms of animation style. Admittedly it's a pretty cartoon, but redundant in motion and execution. You get too many moments of Dragonball Z futility, where two characters stand between beans of alternately colored light, grunting and sweating for ten minutes in a pyrotechnic tug-of-war. You know what I'm talking about. When you're 12, it's awesome, but we cynical and seasoned fans know better.
The technical presentation is as tight as the Chains of Krakkan (a little comic book humor there) with a sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation. The all-digital source material comes out flawlessly, with sharp detail, gorgeous color palates and deep black levels. Some edge enhancement and jaggies are noticeable here and there, but nothing too detrimental. Likewise, the audio presentation rocks out with a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX surround presentation in both English and Spanish. Bass response is firm and controlled, bordering on aggressive. The track makes great use of rear channels and environmental effects, offering a nicely immersive experience, and dialogue is clear and crisp. The English voice actors do a mediocre, but passable job—Dormammu is pitiful, but Mordo sounds awesomely bad-ass. Unfortunately, the dialogue doesn't always sync up well with the lip movements.
Extras are okay, but nothing "magical" (again with the jokes!). We get about 15 minutes of cut scenes from recent Marvel video games, which is so painfully nerdy it shames me to admit how much I enjoyed them. Next is a 15-minute featurette on the history of Doctor Strange featuring interviews with Stan Lee and various comic book names and writers discussing the impact of Strange in 1960s comics—quite revolutionary in style and graphic at the time. It's full of gorgeous artwork and compelling interviews. Shame it isn't longer. We also get a five-minute teaser of Avengers Reborn, the fifth animated Marvel feature yet-to-come. Toss in two minutes of concept art for Doctor Strange and we're all done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Things flow very well for the first half of Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme, with delicate care taken to illustrate Strange's arrogance and ego slowly broken down in the face of the mystical arts. We even get some nice brooding moments from Mordo, jealous and opportunistic, plotting his eventual betrayal of the Ancient One.
Then, with about 25 minutes left in the feature, you can almost hear the creators of Doctor Strange shouting "oh crap" and rushing to wrap up. Suddenly, the Ancient one's dead, there's Dormammu, he's blowing stuff up and—oh, wait, don't worry, Strange just beat him. That's good, I guess. Hold on, wasn't Strange just learning how to use magic like five minutes ago? How'd he do—oh, never mind, the feature's over.
The writers overshoot, pure and simple. In an effort to cram too many comic book issues into a single 90-minute feature, Doctor Strange derails in the last act, descending into a confusing jumble of fight sequences and cataclysmic battles that fail to reach cataclysm, so to speak. I mean, Dormammu didn't even need to be in The Sorcerer Supreme at all. We had a nice tense narrative going between Strange and Mordo; the feature could have kept its nice pacing, the deep character development and had the betrayal of Mordo as the climax. Alas, they squander this moment terribly, tossing it in as an afterthought, and rush the narrative straight into the trash can.
Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme fails to live up to its narrative potential, but sharp animation and a great technical presentation make this DVD a solid rental for the comic book fan. The rushed ending leaves the door open for many more sequels, as all straight-to-DVD moneymaking projects ultimately must, but I'd be inclined to give future installments another look.
It's not a disaster by any stretch of the means, but Doctor Strange does kung-fu, carries a sword, and looks like a Russian tsar in a velvet smoking jacket. You take the good with the bad, I suppose.
Not guilty, if only for not pooping all over the source material. It could have been a lot worse.
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