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With the release of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios has crafted and woven over a dozen films, from different separate franchises, into a single cohesive cinematic universe. It’s an achievement that has never come close to being duplicated in film before. It’s all the result of an elegant if stunningly simple idea; let’s recreate the world of Marvel Comics on screen. The ease and commonplace interaction between characters is part of what made Marvel Comics come alive in the 1960s, and this film slips into this groove with remarkable ease. But while the film fits in with its counterparts, it also draws upon a formula that grows more familiar with each film. Luckily, the filmmakers have packed enough innovative visuals and trippy mysticism into the film to make it still an enjoyable, if unsurprising, spectacle.
Marvel’s Doctor Strange is, of course, an origin tale. It tells the tale of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant neurosurgeon committed to pushing the boundaries and expanding the frontier of his work. But Strange is also a hugely arrogant, single-minded, and callous man. After a car accident ends his medical career, the once proud and wealthy cad is forced to go on a desperate journey to find some way to heal himself and return to his life. His quest eventually brings him to a mystical enclave headed by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her right-hand man Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he embarks upon training in the mystic arts and finds himself facing a threat by the villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson).
There’s a lot to enjoy in the film, and the most impressive and effective attribute are the visuals. Director Scott Derrickson absolutely goes for broke in the mystical combat and multiple bizarre dimensions that make up the world of the film. Marvel has long had an issue with not being bold enough with their visual aesthetic. Without a strong director at the helm with a singular vision, their films have often come off looking less cinematic than they ought to. Even talented directors like Joss Whedon haven’t managed to overcome the jumped-up TV movie vibe Marvel films sometime have. No problem here, as Derrickson took the opportunity to get downright weird and unsettling and crafts vertiginous and surreal sequences of teleportation and mystical travel that delight the eye and create an appropriately bold and exciting landscape. While some have criticized the real-world mystical scenes as too evocative of Inception, I think Marvel’s Doctor Strange goes way further than that film does, and the moments when the film goes into literally other dimensions result in some of the best, most showstopping visuals in any Marvel film to date. in that way, it replicates comics, particularly the work of Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko, incredibly well.
Additionally, Derrickson has assembled what has to be the best cast of any Marvel film. Leaving aside the actors I’ve already mentioned, you also get Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Stuhlbarg and Benedict Wong. Not all of them are provided with material equal to their talent, of course, but just casting people that good means you get performances that can overcome shortcomings in script or screen-time. Of course, there have been criticisms of the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One, who was an elderly Asian man in the comics. I get where that’s coming from, and don’t entirely disagree except to raise two points. First, it’s not as if the Ancient One wasn’t always written as sort of a grotesque stereotype of the “Wise Oriental Mystic” trope, so I’m not sure what kind of interpretation we’re protecting. And second, if you ever have a chance to cast Tilda Swinton, then you cast Tilda Swinton. And she is great in the role, projecting that othwerworldiness that only handful of actors poses as effortlessly as she does.
Benedict Cumberbatch shines as Doctor Strange. There’s something just unconventional enough to his performance that makes you buy that this guy could be destined to become a great sorcerer. He can toss off the quippy one-liners with ease, but still has the gravitas to make frankly ridiculous lines about amulets and other dimensions sound as natural as ordering take out.
But as good as the performances and the visuals are, and they rank among Marvel’s best for sure, you can’t ever escape the sense that you are watching a film you’ve seen before. The comparisons to Marvel’s Iron Man are apt, as this film follows almost exactly the same journey. There’s a reason why origin stories resonate; we like to see the hero become the hero, take on that role. And it’s not like the stories these films are based on aren’t all built from the same formula. But Marvel’s approach (take one flawed but witty character, chuck adversity at them, have them stumble into a heroic role they aren’t sure they can fill only to find an inner nobility that wins the day) is no so familiar that it’s impossible to ignore. The writers here (Screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, from a story by Jon Spaihts, Derrickson & Cargill) never really deviate from that formula, and I think they easily could have played with a non-linear narrative that could have really spiced things up.
Additionally, they even replicate two areas where Marvel films get their most deserved criticisms. McAdams’ love interest character is almost entirely superfluous to the plot, a bad example even for Marvel’s pretty low standards. The injection of a romantic angle that isn’t really explored tries to give the relationship more weight than it deserves, but I can’t help thinking the movie would have been served better by having her be just a friend or colleague. In fact, Michael Stuhlbarg plays a hospital rival of Strange’s and then basically has no part afterwards and I can’t help thinking how much more interesting it would have been if his character had been the one Strange had to seek help from in the final act.
And then there’s the villain. It’s a criminal waste of an actor as good as Mikkeslon to give him so little to do here. The character is barely a character at all, and fees most interesting in a protracted joke that occurs between him and Strange around the Doctor’s title. Otherwise he’s almost profoundly unmotivated and unexplored. But this is an actor who, with just a little more material, could have made a compelling and fascinating antagonist. It’s a shame to see him so ill-used here, even if he does make the character more interesting than a lesser actor would have.
If it sounds like I’m down on Marvel’s Doctor Strange, I’m not, really. There’s a lot, particularly from a directing point of view, that it knocks right out of the park. I’m not being hyperbolic about its visuals, they really are stunning and weird and almost worth the price of admission. And if I bemoan the formulaic qualities of the script, it’s important to note that this formula results in a fun time at the movies. Marvel’s Doctor Strange is fun; the jokes are great and the performances sparkle. But at this point, Marvel desperately needs to shake up its approach, particularly with its initial films for new characters. I think that Strange’s next adventure, with this introductory stuff out of the way, will be more free to experiment, which should only present greater opportunities. 7.5/10