Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before: affluent white man experiences a traumatic event in his life that not only sets him on the path towards heroism but is also the catalyst for correcting all of his character flaws. During the course of his journey and the fostering of his newfound power, he is thrust into a battle much too big for any one man, but somehow only he is qualified to overcome. If that sounds like the plot of almost any comic book origin story to you, it’s because as hackneyed as it is, it works. It attempts to endear us to flawed characters by reflecting our own shortcomings and showing that anyone can become a hero. Particularly if you’re incredibly skilled in some field and have a ton of cash! Doctor Strange doesn’t break the mold of the superhero origin story by any stretch of the imagination. It’s safe to say—and I’m sure numerous other blog posts and tweets will confirm—that that this movie is basically Iron Man with magic. If you step back and take off your critic’s hat, that actually sounds pretty badass.
Let’s start with that whole magic thing. Disregarding the fact that the Thor movies and their representation of Norse pantheon as weird god/aliens basically using magic, or that the Scarlet Witch (sans ridiculous explanation of her contractually mandated not-at-all-mutant abilities) deals in the arcane, this is the MCU’s first out-and-out magic gathering. What’s nice about our introduction to the mystical arts is that it isn’t overwrought or pandering, seeking instead to attach itself to most people’s base understanding of eastern mysticism in order to establish a world where magic can be learned. Less Harry Potter, with its incantations and wand use, and more a holistic tapping into the natural power of the multiverse. Like the Force, before all the midichlorian bullshit.
Who Doctor Strange is is much less interesting than the guy that’s playing him, Benedict Cumberbatch, who still sounds like he has a made-up name to this day. The Doctor Strange of the comics can be enigmatic and interesting at times but too often is used as a last gasp lifeline or solely to explain mystical enemies. Comic book characters rarely bend to the will of their actor. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man is the only actor so far that has had a definitive impact on the way his character has been portrayed across all media, every other actor thrown into title roles has become the ideal in hindsight at best. Stephen Strange is no different. In fact, his visage is so comical that you could throw a circle goatee and a bit of gray at the temples of any relatively tall, dark-haired gentleman and voila, there’s your Doctor Strange! But what’s great about Cumberbatch’s ability to fall into a characters is that he inhabits the Doctor effortlessly, even if his American accent is a little stiff.
His performance, and the fact that this movie is filled to the brim with a small but talented cast of character actors is one of the major strengths of Doctor Strange. Besides Cumberbatch we are treated to the ethereal Tilda Swinton as the master, the stoicism of Chiwetel Ejiofor as brother-in-arms, Benedict (two in one movie?!) Wong as, well, Wong and of course Mads Mikkelsen as
Hannibal the fallen disciple. I give Mads a lot of credit for handling the gray nature of his character’s motivations in a movie that attempts to push a good and evil story as a form of narrative misdirection. The movie’s holistic approach to the arcane is one of the more endearing features of the story given to a small and focused cast, with little to no extraneous characters to keep track of or wonder about. This keeps the at-times disjointed and trippy narrative flowing in step with the now stock Marvel charm, humor and top-tier visuals.
One of the major draws for the idea of a Doctor Strange movie is the opportunity for a Visual Effects team to go all out and throw caution to the wind. The source material, particularly from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, has as much in common with a Pink Floyd laser light show as it did normal comic book fare. And the fact that the magic branch of the MCU has until now gone uninspected, the canvas was blank and ready to be trippier than all those blacklight posters I never bought. The visuals in this movie are really a sight to behold, getting my rare recommendation of shelling out the five extra dollars to see in in 3D. Naysayers and DC comic fans will complain about the fight sequences echoing Inception but there’s some phrase about art and stealing that I’m too tired to Google. I can’t, however defend the choreography of those fights.
The background and arenas that the fights in the movie take place in are wonderfully mind-bending and truly beautiful. They challenge your ability to maintain focus on the sequence but guide your eye back to the important visuals with blasts of magic and solid camera work. The magically-generated weapons and attacks look amazing, but it just becomes so painfully obvious that the actors themselves are fighting in front of green screens with weapons they aren’t actually holding. It’s understandable that choreography of fighting styles that rely less on physical strength and weapons would be less appealing to a fan of solid action sequences, but even considering that, I was still disappointed.
As disappointing as the fight choreography is, the rest of the movie is as enjoyable as any gigantic summer blockbuster and has a much more pleasing narrative than most movies of its ilk. The chemistry between the characters, particularly when spouting nonsensical magic-babble, is very apparent and helps to sell viewers on the legitimacy of the lore put forth in this film. Cumberbatch is as charming as he is alien looking, which plays well against the characterization of Stephen Strange, even if he does get a little annoying after the second time he reminds you that, yes, he is in fact a Doctor.
Doctor Strange definitely checks all the boxes that it’s meant to. It does a great job of introducing us to another branch of the ever-expanding MCU by way of an engaging character portrayed by an engaging actor. The story, while cookie-cutter and at no point unclear about what its ending will be, is sharp and introduces us to likable characters with visually-pleasing powers. It does take the “chosen one” aspect of the hero’s journey a bit to the extreme, but what modern fantasy isn’t guilty of that? The fight choreography does leave a lot to be desired but the visual tapestry strewn about it more than makes up for it if only by way of distraction. And with barely any lip service paid to the constantly-reminding-you-that-everything-is-interconnected MCU, save for a throwaway line in the last ten minutes and a mid-credit scene featuring Thor, Doctor Strange stands strong on its own legs, even if it’s on a spine reinforced by mystical arts pulled from the multiverse.