DOCTOR STRANGE Review

From the outset where Marvel Studios shows off its brand new logo that features clips of its heroes in action from previous films rather than clips of art from their older comic books it is clear just how much of a brand this studio and their particular type of super hero films have become. What is more telling though, is just how aware Marvel is of this fact and how boldly they state their accomplishments in this re-branding of their title card. This slight boasting by the company sets up good and bad expectations for the film that proceeds it as Doctor Strange very much operates within the familiar world Marvel has built while at the same time reminding us of just how high Marvel can fly leaving this rule of a movie to be something of a letdown. Of course, that is the one glaring barrier all Marvel movies now have to overcome in how do they not just play as large scale TV episodes, but more singular stories that feel worthy of the big screen treatment. It's not necessarily that Dr. Stephen Strange isn't worthy of such treatment, but more in the pantheon of all Marvel has done before and all it plans to do in the future this initial outing with the soon-to-be Sorcerer Supreme feels as brisk and as superfluous to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as The Incredible Hulk now ranks. Not that Doctor Strange doesn't introduce a whole new dimension of possibilities to the MCU, but were this film to not work out the way Marvel expects it to for some reason they could essentially ignore its existence and move on with the physical dangers the film tells us The Avengers protect our world from. That won't happen, of course, but that's the type of indifferent feeling director Scott Derrickson's (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) take on a Marvel property unfortunately conjures up. Making this worse is the fact that Doctor Strange features some of the more daring and downright trippy visuals that have been seen in a Marvel movie as well as some of the weirder sequences in the studios filmography that, while visually enchanting, make it even more apparent just how standard the narrative is. Why Marvel and Kevin Feige were willing to go out on something of a risky limb with their visuals as well as just how far Strange can push his powers, but not with the story that brings the titular Doctor into the world of magic and mysticism is a little perplexing, but at the end of the day it's clear this is a board room picture designed to change up Marvel's winning formula just enough so as to appear to be something new and different, but what in reality will rely on the same tricks that have guaranteed consistent hints for eight years now.

The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) consults former student Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) about her new apprentice.
Doctor Strange begins fun enough as we are introduced to the inherently menacing Mads Mikkelsen and his villain Kaecilius who has a way with swords and a mission he and his cronies are intent on carrying out. Derrickson, along with co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, then immediately demonstrate the visual prowess of their film by introducing Tilda Swinton's The Ancient One by having her square off against Kaecilius in a battle sequence that is visually arresting and legitimately demanding of one's attention. It's a solid start and one that immediately sets up how it will differ from what type of super powers we've seen in the MCU thus far, but just as swiftly as it does so much it just as easily slips into the now tired Marvel trope of pairing a fun, bouncy, popular tune with what is supposed to be a fairly serious and/or dramatic piece of work. I will always love Earth, Wind, & Fire as well as "Shining Star," but the use of "Shining Star" feels just as tired at this point as the trick of using such a track to make our titular protagonist feel quirky and likable. This is especially odd given the film then goes on to establish the good doctor as something of an arrogant asshat who prefers fame and congratulations for his medical achievements over the satisfaction of knowing he's saved a life. This is all to say that as intriguing a character as Dr. Stephen Strange is and as appealing as Benedict Cumberbatch is able to make him it is hard to shake the feeling that what we're watching isn't just an alternate version of the first Iron Man film. Take a wealthy, egotistical white guy with an admittedly spectacular goatee, throw his gluttonous routine for a loop, and exile him to a secluded region of the world where he has an eye-opening experience that reveals his own faults and shortcomings as well as a new awareness of the greater evils that threaten the world and one more or less has the outline for Marvel Studios debut film and their latest effort. It's not that Doctor Strange falls apart because of this, but more the sad truth that the day is finally dawning when Marvel is going to really have to begin to alter their templates otherwise the enthusiasm of their legions will begin to inevitably dwindle.

What saves Doctor Strange from being wholly forgettable though is its advantage of being able to explore territory not yet covered by the previous films in the MCU. Other than the aforementioned opening action sequence the first half hour or so of the film is absent of any such territory as Derrickson's direction and screenplay (admirably) keeps its focus on developing the core character of Dr. Stephen Strange and who this man is at present so that we feel a full-on transformation by the time the credits roll. That's all well and good and it only gets better from that point on as Strange travels to Kathmandu to receive his training and in the process learn about all these cool and interesting facets of a world that holds things like astral projections, mirror dimensions, and ancient relics that choose their owners to be possible and real. What detracts from adding such fresh and (interesting) facets to this cinematic universe is when the story doesn't do anything to match the freshness or uniqueness of those aspects. Sure, these abilities are used by characters to travel and fight in ways that are visually compelling (which we saw in glorious IMAX 3D at the local B&B Chenal 9 theater and to which I recommend you do the same), but when done in service of a narrative where the objective ultimately carries little to no weight because the half-baked antagonist could be anybody with scary bags under their eyes there is no lasting impression to be left or larger ideas to consider.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is aided by former flame and colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
That said, Doctor Strange is pretty goofy in spots and the movie totally accepts this fact-never attempting to ask for dramatic consideration. If anything, the film goes in the opposite direction of such soil, hence the underdeveloped love interest in Rachel McAdams, and is almost a broad comedy outside the large action set pieces. Even in the action sequences though, the film can feel really silly, but while that is somewhat expected given the premise of the material what works against Derrickson's film the most outside of its uninspired storytelling is the fact that once Strange begins to master his abilities there are so many other subplots and characters brought into the fold that despite Strange supposedly taking years to master his craft and absorb the amounts of information we are told he learns it can't help but feel like more than a few days. In essence, Doctor Strange is so hell-bent on getting through the character's origin story and including so many things so as to set itself up for future installments that the more interesting aspects of this character and how he came to be end up feeling rushed. This movie features performances from esteemed talent such as Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor and yet we hardly sense any kind of real dynamic between Cumberbatch's Strange and Ejiofor's Mordo. Swinton, on the other hand, is pretty fantastic with her measured eccentricity.

As is more and more common these days the current product is so concerned with the future product that it forgets to take in and enjoy the now. This becomes even more apparent in the final half of the film as it breezes through action sequence after rescue after action sequence after rescue only once taking a moment and therefore a scene to contemplate what a Doctor Strange movie's themes might actually be. One could argue that Derrickson makes the case for time and it being the only true enemy given the films focus on watches and clocks that is reinforced by Strange's uncommon ability to manipulate time, or that there is less a good versus evil battle going on here and more a war of perspective in the vein of who's being told the truth, who's being deceived, and how what version of a truth we choose to believe determines where we fall in such perspectives, but in the end Mikkelsen is little more than a pawn for a literal face in the clouds. I can appreciate that Doctor Strange doesn't succumb to the archetype of mass destruction in its finale and that it really goes for something weird as a means to defeat its all face yet still faceless big bad (whose name is actually Dormammu and who you can read about extensively here if you so care), but it simply isn't consistently strange enough to break down any barriers Marvel has already put up.