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Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme
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by Mel Valentin

"Finally, a Marvel animated feature worthy of the character."
4 stars

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe, almost 50 years ago. Doctor Strange appeared in the aptly titled "Strange Tales" #110 (July 1963), splitting comic book space with, first, the Human Torch, and, later, Nick Fury. Eventually only Doctor Strange remained, but "Strange Tales" folded as an ongoing title at the end of 1969. Since then, Doctor Strange has appeared in multiple solo mini-series, several short-lived comeback attempts, and semi-permanent status as a member of the Avengers. Why Marvel Animation selected Doctor Strange, a character incapable of sustaining an ongoing title, to headline their fourth direct-to-DVD title, "Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme," remains an open question, but the end result, a satisfying, engaging origin story, sidesteps the need for an answer.

Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme focuses primarily on how (and why) Dr. Stephen Strange (voiced by Bryce Johnson), a neurosurgeon, becomes the “Sorcerer Supreme” of the title. When we first meet Dr. Strange, he’s staring wide-eyed as Wong (Paul Nakauchi), Baron Mordo (Kevin Michael Richardson), and several students of the mystical arts, attempt to defeat a dragon-like demon from the Dark Dimension. In the first hint of Strange’s mystical abilities, he can see through Wong’s invisibility spell. Wong makes a note of Strange’s ability before returning with Mordo and the others to their Tibetan retreat, where their master, known only as the Ancient One (Michael Yama), awaits.

In the “real” world, Strange is quickly revealed as the arrogant, self-satisfied, compassionless character familiar to anyone who’s read Strange’s multiple comic book appearances, but writer Greg Johnson (Planet Hulk, Wolverine and the X-Men, The Invincible Iron Man, Ultimate Avengers I and II) gives Strange a younger sister, April (Tara Strong), who dies from a brain tumor despite Strange’s attempts to save her (by operating himself). The emotional trauma of losing his sister has left Strange a bitter, resentful man incapable of sustaining personal relationships. When another doctor and former lover, Gina Atwater (Susan Spano), attempts to enlist Strange’s help in treating a young coma patient, he refuses, due to her family’s inability to pay his high fees.

Seriously injured in a car accident and his career as a surgeon threatened, Strange exhausts his personal fortune attempting to restore the use of his hands. Nothing works. Wong stops from Strange from taking his own, offering him hope in Tibet. In Tibet, Strange has to undergo rigorous physical and mystical training before he can realize his true potential. As Strange travels the road toward enlightenment, Wong, Mordo, and others repeatedly return to the real world to combat demons controlled by Dormammu (Jonathan Adams), a powerful, flame-headed demon banished to a Lovecraftian netherworld (a.k.a., the Dark Dimension) years earlier by the Ancient One.

As envisioned by Johnson and supervising director, Frank Paur, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme relies heavily on a martial arts/mystical arts combination. Strange and the other sorcerers can create swords from pure energy which they use to fight more traditional battles (an actual plus). Of course, this Dr. Strange can throw energy blasts from his hands, create energy cloaks to protect from attack, and otherwise manipulate magic to his own ends. Not surprisingly, the fight scenes escalate in complexity and intensity (another plus), a credit to Johnson’s screenplay that mixes emotional beats with action beats and the animators at the Tokyo-based Answer Studio supervised by Paur.

Giving Strange a backstory, one, unfortunately, as clichéd as the younger sister he can’t save, however, is a major misstep that’s hard to overlook, especially for fans of Strange’s comic book iteration. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme also spends an inordinate amount of time setting up Strange’s pre-accident character, filling in the backstory via multiple flashbacks (one would have been enough), and not enough time on Strange learning to use his magical abilities. Like Harry Potter, Strange doesn’t have to do much to develop his abilities. He’s also chosen by the Ancient One as his successor (ostensibly because he hasn’t sought the “sorcerer supreme” title) rather than earn it through effort.

The animation in Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme is better here than in Marvel Animation’s previous titles (The Invincible Iron Man, Ultimate Avengers I and II) or even their subsequent titles (Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow, Hulk vs., Planet Hulk). Answer Studio solidly delivers distinctive character designs, world building, and the well-choreographed action sequences that create tension and suspense. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme also has a surprisingly high body count, but that’s softened by giving secondary character minimal screen time, making their deaths practically meaningless.

Sadly, neither an animated sequel to nor a "Harry Potter"-style live-action adaptation appears to be in Doctor Strange’s (or our) future. For now, comic book fans will have to content themselves with Doctor Strange’s supporting role in the various "Avengers’" titles, the occasional well-received, usually underselling mini-series, and, of course, "Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme."

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originally posted: 02/24/10 01:00:00
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  N/A (PG-13)
  DVD: 14-Aug-2007



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