From its announcement years ago, Doctor Strange was always the one Marvel movie that I had the most mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it was exciting to see my favourite hero from the Marvel Universe on the big screen. On the other, it was distressing as it seemed that they could get it wrong in so many ways. From the casting decisions to the director’s resume, I wasn’t immediately sold on what Marvel seemed to be delivering. Even Marvel Studios’ track record didn’t reassure me that the movie was going to be any good. I’ve even mentioned on the blog before that the first trailer didn’t wow me. But November 4th rolled around and I decided that it was my duty as a Doctor Strange fan to at least give it a chance. As Marvel’s biggest hero introduction since Captain America, does Doctor Strange hold it’s own in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? I’m happy to say that it does, with some caveats.
As far as Doctor Strange’s plot goes it couldn’t be more generic. In fact, even by superhero standards, it’s origin story 101. Doctor Stephen Strange is a world-renowned surgeon who’s almost superhuman dexterity and intelligence is matched by an equally massive ego. His world, however, is turned upside-down when an accident causes his hands to be horribly damaged, preventing him from continuing his life’s work. After burning through his savings and shunning his friends and colleagues in a desperate attempt to fix his hands, he ends up traveling to Nepal to find the “Ancient One” to heal him. Of course, things are not what they seem and he ends being drawn into the world of the mystic arts and alternate dimensions, and ultimately is caught in a battle against evil forces beyond the mortal realm. Sound familiar?
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Doctor Strange is the lack of experimentation with the origin story. This isn’t a carbon copy of Doctor Strange’s origin story from the comics, but it doesn’t feel particularly different. Now as a Doctor Strange fan, part of me is grateful at how faithful they were to certain aspects of the lore. But as a film critic, I felt like there were moments where I thought to myself, “ok so now I’m just waiting for x to happen.” It certainly doesn’t help that the primary antagonist is depressingly cookie-cutter, though Marvel seems to have difficulty giving their bad guys depth. Magic and the added dimension (pun totally intended) to the Marvel Universe are the big things keeping this from being an Iron Man clone.
But, while Doctor Strange won’t be winning any points for creativity when it comes adapting the source material, it’s not bad by any means. Yes, plot twists can be seen coming from miles away, especially if you’re familiar with the comics, but if you’re going to a Marvel movie expecting something truly different then you’re watching the wrong film. As far as comic book movies go, Doctor Strange is still decently written and tells a story that never gets old. After all, it’s why we’ve had like 6 other characters in the same universe go through essentially the same thing.
Helping bring this classic story to life is a cast that ultimately surprised me, considering the mixed expectations I had going into the film. Benedict Cumberbatch does a pretty good job as Doctor Strange, although if you’re a fan of Sherlock then you’ll be familiar with what he’s going for. Think Sherlock meets Tony Stark mixed with Harry Potter. Side note, his accent was better than expected, though words like chakras seem to be a week spot. Other surprises include Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, which works in this version of the Marvel Universe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo. Honorable mention goes to Mads Mikkelsen who plays the film’s antagonist, Kaecilius, and does a good job as the villain (as usual) despite Kaecilius’ motivations being some of the weakest of the MCU. Overall the performances in Doctor Strange are well done and walk the fine line of being entertaining without taking themselves too seriously.
But the best part of Doctor Strange is the visuals. When Doctor Strange was originally written, it was intended to represent not only the world of black magic but also be akin to a drug-induced hallucination (I’m not kidding). The reality warping and alternate dimensions that Strange travels to all capture that atmosphere wonderfully. A lot is happening on screen, and it might seem like sensory overload to some. But really I feel that is what the audience should be feeling in these moments, a true sense of awe combined with slight apprehension as to what is actually happening at any given moment. Combine that with some amazing fight scenes and you have one of the best-looking films Marvel Studios has ever produced.
In the end, I enjoyed Doctor Strange. Am I satisfied with the film as a Doctor Strange fan? More or less. Is it one of the best films Marvel has made? Visually? Yes. In every other aspect? No, not by a long shot. But, I can still recommend Doctor Strange to both Marvel fans and anyone else who might be interested in a fun way to kill a couple hours. Just don’t be surprised if it all doesn’t feel so magical after all.