Review: Doctor Strange
After capitalizing on its steady stable of established heroes many times over, Marvel Studios is now dipping its toe in uncharted waters with DOCTOR STRANGE, a modestly trippy superhero film that follows the brand model perfectly, even if it thinks it's doing the opposite. That's both a blessing and a curse, depending on how tired or energized you are by that model, which has served the studio exceptionally so far. Directed by Scott Derrickson (SINISTER, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular doctor, the origin tale of Dr. Stephen Strange is a bit of a wobbly affair, sprinkled with genuine moments of coolness, not-as-clever-as-you-may-think effects, cardboard villains, excessive comedy bits, and a firm, if not somewhat flimsy, establishment of one of Marvel's most prominent characters.
While I actively avoided anything but trailers for DOCTOR STRANGE in the lead up to seeing it, the surprises ended up being that there weren't that many surprises to be had. Sure, those morphing buildings and light-up magic hand effects looked cool in the trailer, but they often feel more like just a cool effect instead of a meaningful one. It also doesn't help that Chrisopher Nolan's INCEPTION did that building morphing thing much more effectively, even if it doesn't steal away from the awe of it in DOCTOR STRANGE. Thankfully, there are still a few tricks up the good doctor's robes, so it's most certainly not a complete mirror of other films that "did it better."
The most important aspect to get right out of a DOCTOR STRANGE film is that the principle character needs to work. When you hire someone like Benedict Cumberbatch that may seem like a given. And, for the most part, Cumberbatch brings Strange to life with charm, arrogance, and quite a bit of humor (a bit too much, really). And, let's be honest, in terms of appearance, he looks ripped from the comic book page. The unfortunate miss here is that we don't feel his journey so much as his struggle. Yes, we see the egomaniacal surgeon severely injured in a car crash and struggling hopelessly to find a cure, leading him to a monestary in Nepal, run by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her right-hand man, Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but his transition is so abrupt that if you go to the bathroom once he's accepted into the monestary you'll come back to find that he's already mastered everything and is standing at the starting line to become the next Sorcerer Supreme.
While we certainly don't need a large chunk of the film dedicated to his quick mastery of magic, the comics had him in training for seven years before he was anything worthwhile and this seems to go by in a season. I understand moving things along, but this inconsistent pacing is one of the momentum killers that inhibits our investment in the character's arc. While Strange clumsily fights off the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his minions, a group of sorcerers determined to find immortality in a dark realm ruled by the classic comic villain Dormammu, he is quick to acquire the Cloak of Levitation, weapons, and adaptable skills and spells with little-to-no explanation. He's just that good. Deal with it. Well, I can and I can't, even if it's "just" a comic book movie (I also found the lack of detailed spells being spoken as in the comics to be a missed opportunity). There's still the burden of providing some suspense and a shadow of doubt that he may not be up to the task put before him. In that aspect the film struggles to find its footing, as you never feel like he's been pushed to his limits, even after all the craziness he endures. It all happens far too briskly.
But, don't let that deter you. In no way do those things halt enjoyment of the overall film. Clumsy pacing and poor suspense aside, there are still some truly inspired moments here, including an astral projection battle that is both playful and cool, as well as a finale that makes use of a familiar film technique we've seen before, but used to a satisfyingly fun degree. While Cumberbatch is the main course at this table, the sides, especially Tilda Swinton, are a welcome addition, even if themselves not fully realized. Swinton is a masterclass actress and proves that she can play in the comic book genre just as well as anyone, while Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo is a strong, yet perplexing character. He's got the makings of something more, but it'll take a sequel to really dive into that. Benedict Wong's...Wong, is a fine addition, while Rachel McAdams capitalizes on her playful nature in an otherwise underdeveloped role. As Strange's love interest we learn almost nothing about what makes either of them so close other than a shared profession, which is a shame as they certainly have the chemistry for more.
Like nearly every MCU film to date, DOCTOR STRANGE falls right in line with the familiar villain problem. The typical response is that you only have about two hours to develop a solid villain, but I'm not giving out free passes for that tired argument. Plenty of other films have proven that wrong and it's time for Marvel to do the same. Dormammu, when he finally appears, is only a slight variance on his comic book appearance, turned instead into a giant CGI talking head, which is pretty weak sauce for a final showdown baddie. Mikkelsen is up to task and looks the part as Kaecilius, but we learn almost nothing about him that would create anything more than what he is here: a throwaway minion. You know your big bads are waning when Scott Adkins upstages all of them doing exactly what he does in every straight-to-VOD actioner. And, I mean that as a compliment to him.
DOCTOR STRANGE is a mixed bag of Marvel tricks and treats, much like my kid's take home stash of Halloween candy. There's some solid, reliable goodies in there, but also a few oranges and cheap bits that are better left in the trash. It's truly great to have an established Stephen Strange in the MCU and Cumberbatch is a great actor to inhabit him, but I ultimately left the film more hopeful for a better sequel or recurring appearances in other films (like the upcoming AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR), rather than wanting to revisit this wobbly-yet-entertaining first effort. While the Marvel origin model has been a proven one in years past, I feel like STRANGE may be the one that shows its not as bulletproof as they believe. I'm glad the Doctor is in, that's for sure, but looking forward to seeing what he does with some new patients.
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