Stellar Action, Acting, and Effects in a Familiar Film
With Doctor Strange, the 14th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios proves that they can craft a compelling, broadly appealing superhero film with even their more esoteric characters. But with an overly familiar narrative and character arc, it’s a good thing that director Scott Derrickson’s film has strong performances, eye-popping visuals, and intriguing ideas to balance out its predictable story beats.
Like most superhero origin tales, Doctor Strange follows a man whose selfish way of life is beset by tragedy, but his discovery of new powers and a greater worldview allows him to save lives and the world as a whole. Here, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant and highly skilled neurosurgeon whose hubris is laid low when he causes a car crash that cripples his hands. With his life ruined and his ego in tatters, Strange travels to Asia in search of a way to fix his injuries, only to find enlightenment in the palace of Kamar-Taj under the guidance of the powerful sorcerer known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). But Strange’s quest for healing collides with the evil machinations of the sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to harness an evil force to change the world forever.
If that narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In general, Doctor Strange follows the familiar hero’s journey arc that informs many of Marvel Studio’s origin films. It’s standard issue, given a few flairs or genre touches here and there. That over-familiarity doesn’t make the film pop like the best superhero movies that have either moved passed the origin or are deliberately trying to do something else, but it’s also a tried and true method has worked for countless films in decades past and will surely be of use in the decades to come. It’s just slightly disappointing for a film that’s being made so far into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s tenure.
But it’s hard to complain too much when everything here is executed so strongly.
As Dr. Strange himself, Cumberbatch brings a strong blend of arrogance and brokenness, showing us multiple sides of a character whose prodigious skills have given him the right to boast and hold himself in high regard, yet have only worsened him as a person. Watching him transition from cold-hearted to broken to self-sacrificingly heroic is completely convincing, as the script by Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill makes sure to retain his character flaws and telltale characteristics while developing his morality along the heroic journey. Cumberbatch plays all sides of the character well and while the idea of a haughty, wealthy, quippy man laid low and turned into a superhero is a little too reminiscent of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man at times, Cumberbatch has a unique charisma and a different enough world to play in to keep the similarities from being grating.
Cumberbatch is joined by a top notch supporting cast through and through. While much as been made of the choice to cast a white actor in an Asian role, Swinton as The Ancient One brings an unknowable yet empathetic energy to the role that could have easily been the clichéd and eye roll-inducing “wise master” seen in far too many films. In addition, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, fellow sorcerer and rough-edged friend to Strange, is, not surprisingly, excellent. Ejiofor is a fantastic actor and brings layers to what is often a contrarian supporting role. Rachel McAdams is also strong as Christine Palmer, a nurse who has known Strange for years and is witness to his transformation while still grappling with the difficult man that he is. Marvel chooses not to go with the completely forseeable romantic arc between them, instead offering something a little greyer and less tidy in order to add more human layers to both characters. There’s also Benedict Wong as Wong, another sorcerer and a librarian in the ancient temple who brings some fun comedic moments while not being relegated to comedic relief.
If the strong supporting cast comes as no surprise given Marvel’s adeptness at creating them for their many movies, then the weakness of the villain should not blindside you either. As Kaecilius, Mikkelsen does what he can with what is largely an ideological threat and a mostly one-dimensional character. Kaecilius is here to be Strange’s dark reflection and the conduit to yet another potentially world-ending threat. It’s nothing new, but it’s also bolstered by slightly different motives and some interesting moments that allow his goals to be understandable and even potentially tempting at first glance, which can’t be said for most of the maniacal villains thrown at the Avengers from year to year. Sweet magical mascara, too.
Derrickson and crew also create a vibrant, wild world for their characters, never skimping on the magical action or throwing new ideas at the audience to take in. Cities fold in on themselves, people are rocketed through dimensions, time is turned and twisted, and interdimensional monsters are fought, giving new settings and challenges that keep the action fresh from start to finish. Nothing feels stale and the stakes are appropriately raised from set piece to set piece. In doing so, Doctor Strange lets loose with the full scope of its mystical ideas, which benefit from the high budget and top tier special effects afforded by Marvel’s continued success. Wild ideas, a gorgeous range of trippy colors, and a host of thrilling fights make this the best-looking Marvel movie to date. In particular, the dizzying chase through an Inception-like folding city, a battle fought as time reverses around the combatants, and an unconventional confrontation in the film’s climax are the fight highlights of the film. The days of action sequences in Marvel movies that come up short are long gone and it’s clear that a film as wild and effects-heavy as Doctor Strange would not have been possible before now.
By the way, Michael Giacchino’s score here sounds so similar to his work in the Star Trek reboots that it becomes distracting. Well done, but way too similar.
Like every Marvel Studios movie, Doctor Strange is also rife with comedy, from physical gags to one-liners, which pepper the film from start to finish. As intended, they bring a certain levity to what could be overly self-serious, and typically work to flesh out most of the characters. However, there are moments when true drama or tension is undercut by a sudden joke or gag, leading to less emotional impact, although not on the same level as the awful Thor: The Dark World. It seems like Marvel just can’t let their films sit in tension for too long before trying to make the audience laugh, like the loser at a baseball game that can’t help but make a noise when a moment of silence is called for fear of emotional honesty. Don’t be that loser Marvel; let your films have some more weight. Those that have done so have been resonant, like the brutal climax of Captain America: Civil War or the emotionally-laden finale of Guardians of the Galaxy. But Doctor Strange never quite gets to that level, leaving it as merely solid in its storytelling execution.
However, there are enough ideas floating around within the conventional structure of Doctor Strange to make it hold up to scrutiny, including its spiritual meditation on recognizing a higher power than yourself, the moral choices made by its characters in several key scenes throughout, and the film’s refreshing blend of the spiritual and the intellectual, never giving one full precedence and power over the other. These elements blend well with the high caliber production of Doctor Strange, making it another solid, somewhat fresher entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.