Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
For the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel the compelling draw to the theater because “Marvel” was stamped on the film. Over the past year, I’ve grown tired of the continual onslaught of superhero films that have been coming from Marvel and DC because they all follow the same formula. Give me something new, exciting, or different. While Captain America: Civil War was exciting because it contained a certain level of intrigue and complexity to the plot, I haven’t felt the need to go back and watch it again even though the blu-ray is sitting on my shelf. Doctor Strange marks the introduction to the magical side of the Marvel universe after Guardians of the Galaxy introduced the world to the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe. The film was a beautiful example that pushes the boundaries of what film effects are capable of today, with a story was another unimaginative, formulaic, origin story that we’ve all seen before.
Marvel was finally able to get their hands on some of that sweet Cumberbatch action by casting Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Dr. Stephen Strange, an intelligent neurosurgeon whose hands are crippled after a horrible car accident. After wasting away all of his money on experimental treatments to get rid of a tremor in his hands, Strange travels to Kamar-Taj to meet with a sorcerer known as the Socerer Supreme (played by Tilda Swinton). Instead of having his hands healed, Strange discovers his has a gift for sorcery as he studies under the different masters and the Sorcerer Supreme at Kamar-Taj. Meanwhile, one of the Sorcerer Supreme’s former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) gathers his own group of followers to summon the entity known as Dormammu, an all-powerful being from the dark dimension who wishes to swallow the earth whole. Strange is then forced to make a choice between selfishly healing himself to reclaim his place as a surgeon, or to continue as a sorcerer to defend the world from things unseen.
From the trailers is sounded like Cumberbatch’s American accent would come across as fake, or forced, but I found that to be one of the least distracting elements of this film. Cumberbatch is a brilliant actor in anything he does, and Doctor Strange proves to be no exception. Even though this film is more set-up than it is an actual story, Cumberbatch claims the role of Doctor Strange and makes it difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Mads Mikkelsen also bring some great performances to the film. Compared to other Marvel films, I thought Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius had the clearest goals of any Marvel villain. While those goals lacked any sort of complexity, he managed to argue his point of view compellingly, which made him a strong foil for the Sorcerer Supreme, which blurred the lines between good and evil and gave Strange a lot to consider as he progressed in his training.
The biggest weakness working against Doctor Strange, and other Marvel films, is the foreknowledge of sequels. At this point the world knows that Doctor Strange will be appearing alongside the Avengers in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. Any philosophical arguments in this film from the Sorcerer Supreme and Kaecilius are meaningless with the foreknowledge that Doctor Strange will choose to fight for good. It also weakens the climax of the film. Like many other superhero films, Doctor Strange chooses to make the villain’s final plan a plot to destroy the entire world. Even before the fight begins the audience knows that the bad guy will lose and the good guy will win. There’s nothing interesting to make his hero’s journey a compelling one. We’re supposed to feel something when Strange decides to give up being a surgeon to save the world, but we don’t. We’re supposed to feel something when he gives up a possible relationship with Christine (Rachel McAdams), but we don’t. There are a lot of great ideas included in the film, but nothing is ever explored to a satisfying conclusion.
If the biggest weakness with Doctor Strange is its story, then the biggest strength is the visual spectacle it bombards you with. Taking a cue from the original Strange Tales Doctor Strange comics from the 1960s, the film features amazing, impossible shapes that push the viewers idea of time and space. If you thought the dream sequences from Inception were impressive, imagine those on steroids. While there are some aspects of CGI which will clearly be dated in about 5 years, there are still plenty of moments that really work for the film and will continue to make the film an imaginative marvel. A lot of what the film did would be impossible with practical effects, and thats ok. The shapes of the buildings and movements the characters take as they fight through shifting hallways and spiraling buildings creates its own sense of tension and resolve as the fight scenes continue that it almost makes up for the lack of an interesting story. Its like someone was looking through a kaleidoscope, and managed to create those images in a 3D space.
Doctor Strange manages to be visually stimulating, in spite of its lackluster origin story. The visuals are a decent example of what is achievable with film today, and easily pushes the boundaries of what is conceptual on screen. Its worth watching at least once just because of how good this film looks. I was skeptical going into this film, but the visuals were enough to keep me interested. It does make me question the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with almost three more years of Marvel films scheduled to come out. Marvel has set themselves apart from DC by having a massive overarching plan for how all of their films will connect ever since 2008’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, but 10 years later their formula has become stale and could use for some improvement.