At this point, reviewing any one movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is deceptively difficult. Do you view it as a big screen television series, with the ups and downs of an episodic season? Do you single out the constant criticisms of Marvel’s films, even though by now we’re very familiar with them? And what if the MCU’s latest is a genuinely entertaining experience, even though by now we’ve been taught to expect more?
First things first: if you want to know spoiler-free whether this film is for you, Liam’s review is a great look at it. Seen the movie already, or don’t care about spoilers? Let’s jump in.
The most impressive aspect from minute one has got to be the visuals, and yes, they really are Strange enough. Rather than the usual “force push” (read: practically invisible) treatment that most Hollywood magic receives, we are given spinning sigils, psychedelic mind-trips, and a whole lot of floating around, proving that superhero flight has clearly come a long way since Superman: The Movie. The filmmakers were even generous enough to show the centerpiece visual, that of the kaleidoscopic Mirror Dimension, in the first action scene between Kaecilius and the Ancient One. A truly excellent beginning, despite perhaps setting high expectations, that the movie tops with the third act’s “backwards fight.” I know it made me hopeful for even more time travel hijinks in the future.
Conceptually, reality-warping wizard battles are reason enough to justify the movie’s existence. In reality, these battles, though beautiful, mostly serve to punctuate a rote script. It is a testament to the efforts of the actors, the effects artists, and director Scott Derrickson that the very basic story doesn’t drag down the enjoyment of Doctor Strange – as others have pointed out, it is still Marvel-by-the-numbers. Just like Thor: The Dark World, the sub-2-hour running time appears to have hurt any hopes of interesting character drama. A few more minutes of downtime between Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams would have helped the audience connect with their relationship (see the Iron Man movies or Captain America), but it could be that the substance wasn’t even there to begin with.
Though he has more personality than Malekith, Kaecilius also gets short shrifted by being yet another villain who wants to bring some form of generic doom to the universe. This time it’s about removing time. Again, like I said at the top, these are the usual criticisms of the second-tier MCU movies, though Doctor Strange manages to stand apart by being better in plenty of other ways.
Except for Hiddleston’s Loki, the leads of the Thor films didn’t seem like they wanted to be in the movie. Here, everybody is having a blast. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One easily acquits the pre-release complaints of whitewashing by delivering the film’s boilerplate spiritualism with a constant wry sense of humor and energy, belying her informed ‘ancientness’. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays an uptight partner and foil to Strange, making Mordo’s turn at the end all the more painful. The second after-credits scene only makes this better, promising that he will make a more interesting antagonist in the inevitable Doctor Strange 2. And despite not having much to work with, Mads Mikkelsen manages to imbue Kaecilius with a certain roguish magnetism.
Of course, they are still just supporting roles to Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange, who brings witty grace and Marvel’s trademark snide silliness in equal measure. Despite sharing his supercilious attitude, Strange is distinguished from Tony Stark through Cumberbatch’s more intense moments. When Iron Man gets angry, we know he’s going to do something rash. When Doctor Strange gets angry, you’d better get out of the way.
For that matter, despite the familiar Marvel Lego-bricks, the film introduces new worlds and tones to the MCU that will pay dividends in the future. From the Asian setting that doesn’t go in for the usual “ooh, look how weird and exotic Asians can be!” nonsense to the hospital scenes and hilarious astral-plane fight that occurs there, Doctor Strange is as much a departure from Civil War as Guardians of the Galaxy was from The Winter Soldier. Even without James Gunn’s indie-cred, Scott Derrickson’s personal flair shepherds us into a different corner of the universe.
Adding to this feeling of ‘newness’ is the score by Michael Giacchino. While I didn’t find it as memorable as his recent Star Trek efforts, this is one of the best scores a Marvel movie has enjoyed since Captain America, or even as far back as Danny Elfman’s Spiderman. Following Strange’s spectacular car crash, we are even treated to a sonata that echoes Cumberbatch’s introduction in the Star Trek sequel-that-shall-not-be-named. The idea to use harpsichord as Strange’s motif in the second half of the film might seem cliched, but it’s still tons of fun, ramping up to a climax and end credits suite that sets a very high bar for the next movie. Since that will be Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, however, I’m sure they’ll have no trouble with that.
They say that a movie can’t be that bad if you’re left wanting more, which is certainly the case with Doctor Strange. It may be business as usual, but Marvel’s business is booming right now. It’s disappointing, however, much like with Star Trek Beyond and Warcraft this year, that the story might have been better served – especially in the middle – with more time for character development and exploring the fantastical, magical world that it creates.
Despite what-could-have-been, Doctor Strange is still an excellent example of why superhero stories should expand into new territory, and it beats out the other second-tier Marvel films of late by sheer exuberance. I have to go now and get me that original soundtrack; it’s fantastic.