After 14 financially and critically successful superhero movies, I don’t think fans have to fear that Marvel Studios will ever make a “bad” movie.
What I think they DO have to fear, however, is Marvel Studios falling into an inescapable rut with their movies; their tried-and-true formula and methods work so well, and so consistently, it seems plausible that the magic of Marvel films will eventually fade because of how “samey” and safe their movies feel.
Doctor Strange, however, the 14th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the second of the ‘Phase 3’ movies, demonstrates that the team behind Marvel Studios is making an active effort to avoid this very possible future.
In Doctor Strange, we follow the titular Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Once a brilliant, yet arrogant, neurosurgeon, Strange’s life falls apart after a car crash leaves his hands with irreparable nerve damage. After exhausting all that western medicine had to offer, he seeks out alternative methods and ends up in Nepal. There he meets a mysterious woman called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Together with fellow magical practitioners Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange is taught the ancient mystic arts. When he is dragged into a battle against former mystic Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the Sorcerer Supreme* must use every magical spell at his disposal to win.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The general plot of Doctor Strange, in which an arrogant but gifted man learns the value of empathy in time to use his superpowers to save the world, is basically the exact same plot as the first Iron Man movie. It’s an origin story for Strange, and also the weakest element of the movie – despite attempts to mix-up some of the elements of this familiar story, it all plays out in a very predictable and linear fashion. We see Strange push other people away. We see him learn his new powers. We see him refuse the call to be a hero. We see the circumstances that force him to be a bigger man and accept his new responsibility. We’ve seen it all before.
There are moments where the movie tries to be different, beyond the obvious magical elements. Strange has some romantic involvement with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but she isn’t really a “love interest.” She doesn’t need to be saved and she proves herself competent and independent in her role as a fellow doctor and one that Strange sees as a relative equal (or at the very least a worthy associate). The Big Bad of the movie, Kaecilius, is given more time and lines to explain his motivations and there are moments where he does actually have a point, however unfortunately misguided it may be, though he’s an unremarkable and largely forgettable villain compare to others within the Marvel universe; one who seems to serve only as a vessel to a greater, more omnipotent evil, Normammu.
But while the story of Doctor Strange may be good-yet-safe, it shines when it comes to immersing the audience in this new world of magic and mysticism. When the explanation for everyone’s powers is simply “magic!” then it should come as no surprise that the visual effects are amazing (this is probably the first movie that I’d actually recommend you see in IMAX 3D if it’s available in your area).
I appreciate that Doctor Strange stayed far away generic energy blasts and instead focused on the idea that magical spells don’t need to adhere to any standard laws of physics or perception. The city-bending action scene from the trailers is indeed wacky and mind-bending, like a chase scene happening in an M.C. Escher drawing. Buildings bend and space is manipulated in beautiful and puzzling ways that actually contribute to the action on screen. Time and space are malleable in Doctor Strange, and nothing is off the table as long as there’s a spell, and a desire to learn it.
What I appreciate even more about the magical elements of the movie is its all-out dedication to being as weird and mystical as it can be without a hint of irony. This movie confidently walks out concepts like magical spells needing specific hand movements, ancient relics with Dungeons & Dragons names, and extra-dimensional shenanigans like its nothing. One second Strange will be making a Beyonce joke and the next they will talking about the “Cloak of Levitation” and the “Vaulting Boots of Valtoor”. This is the kind of weirdness I wanted from Doctor Strange, and I hope that Marvel can commit to introducing new and interesting elements to the MCU no matter how… strange they might be.
Another little bit of appreciation for the movie: It contains rather minimal references to the other movies. Doctor Strange may have its easter eggs and post-credit scenes, but this movie mostly works completely independently of the other movies. Such a separation adds a nice air of freshness to the movie, and makes it inviting to new viewers.
Doctor Strange demonstrates that Marvel is willing to go a bit out on a limb for a character, but not quite that far out. It bodes well for the future Phase 3 movies and ends up being a fresh superhero movie that doesn’t need knowledge of the others to work. I just hope that Marvel learns from this movies continued success that they can take more risks with their faithful adaptations of decades-old characters and challenge audiences with further outlandish and unforeseen concepts, instead of being content with just enough risk to exceed pre-established expectations of what Marvel is capable of bringing to life on the big screen.
*I know that’s his official title, but I think he qualifies as a “Wizard” and not a “Sorcerer.” But that may be my D&D self talking.
FINAL SCORE - Doctor Strange
While Doctor Strange plays it safe in the story department, it’s still an interesting and fun tale to be had. But Doctor Strange is all about playing fast and loose with magic, and it definitely delivers a colorful visual spectacle divorced from physical limitations.