The whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more than the sum of its parts. The series in its entirety is regarded quite positively; and it has a considerable legacy in terms of how it has redefined filmmaking and the way in which pulp material is perceived by the masses; but on a film-by-film bases, it’s somewhat hit and miss. Some MCU movies are great*, most are varying degrees of okay, and at least two** deserve to be buried in sulfur, in my humble opinion. Unfortunately, Doctor Strange, the latest entry in this saga, while not a train wreck, is also not one of the great ones.
Storywise, Doctor Strange is kind of like Iron Man if technology were replaced with magic. Like Tony Stark, Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an intelligent but arrogant man at the top of his field (Strange is a surgeon rather than a scientist/industrialist) who, through unfortunate circumstances (for Strange it’s a car crash), is wounded and thrown from his prosperous but shallow life, which leads him to discover new powers and become a superhero (as well as a better human being) in the process.
The difference with Doctor Strange is that its plot is both sloppier and more contrived than in Iron Man. The car crash that wounds Strange, for example, is a poorly justified scene — Strange inexplicably refuses to adhere to even the most basic driving precautions while cruising on the side of a cliff. Maybe his carelessness is supposed to be an extension of his cocky persona (I feel like I’m grasping at straws with that one), but as portrayed, it comes across as a cheap cop-out where the writers use random stupidity to advance a narrative. Next, the movie proceeds to skim rather quickly — too quickly, in fact — over the fallout from this accident. Strange’s hands have lost most of their dexterity, and he evidently goes bankrupt on experimental surgeries to try to fix them. This all is delivered way too fast though; with no real time for any of this to sink in, which curtails our emotional connection to Strange.
After that though, the movie settles into something of a groove; Strange travels to Asia in order to find a mystical group who supposedly can fix his hands. He finds said group, who agrees to take him in and teach him about the ways of magic. This stretch of the picture is okay; it’s basically a fun training montage of Strange learning about such concepts as astro-projection, teleportation, dimension-hopping, and magical-weapon-conjuring; and I’m a huge fan of training montages. For as fun as the magic can be in this story, though, there are seemingly too many arbitrary of rules on display here concerning what magic can or can’t do in particular situations; moreover, it’s all too often the case that new rules, abilities, or limitations concerning magic show up out of nowhere in order to set up a particular plot point. This doesn’t tank the picture, but I think the rules about this magic needed to be a little more consistent from the start; and I believe this is another example of bad writing in the movie.
While I’m talking about poor writing, let’s discuss this film’s villains. The main villain, Kaecilius, is a defected member of this magical group (like Strange, he was an outsider who was taken in) who carries on the MCU tradition of the antagonist being a mirror reflection of the protagonist. He’s also thematically shallow; with very confusing motivations. They are so confusing that I have a hard time recalling them. It has something to do with merging a Dark Dimension (not to be confused with the Dark World from Thor: The Dark World) with this dimension in order to do… something (it’s described so poorly that I really can’t remember). That dimension is also home to a gigantic cloud monster who wants to do…something that requires destroying our world. Again, I’m really sorry, everyone, I try to be somewhat professional about recalling relevant details about a movie’s story, but these scenes explaining the villains’ goals are so full of pseudo-mystical babble that is so under-explained that I just can’t keep it straight. As a result the villains in this piece don’t really work as compelling antagonists; which is a real problem for a superhero story. Also, I apologize if this seems like a cheap shot, but Kaecilius, who wears strange eyeliner throughout the movie, is the worst looking of all the MCU villains thus far. Admittedly, this is somewhat evened out by the cloud monster, who has a great deal of vibrant color and is pretty cool to look at.
So yeah, much of this film did not impress me; and I feel as though the screenplay needed some definite revision. However, I’m also the individual who bent over backwards to be nice to Suicide Squad, so I should probably try to be more positive with this one. As I touched on earlier, there are fun bits with some of the magic scenes. Most of the moments involving astro-projection and dimension hopping are both visually impressive and entertaining to watch. Huge Inception-style scenes involving shifting buildings and city streets, for example, are dazzling to see, and they are incorporated well with some fun action. There’s also a somewhat original scene in which an astro-projected-Doctor Strange fights an astro-projected-henchman, resulting in an amusing ghost battle where they fight up and down corridors in a hospital with most of the workers oblivious to it. Also, I will happily admit that, though much of the plot is middling, the ending of this film is fairly impressive. It involves Dr. Strange bending time in creative ways against our villains, resulting in a very unique solution for how to defeat them; and it definitely stands out amongst more cliche’d superhero endings. If only the rest of the film had tried to be that original.
Beyond the action, there are a handful of nicer, smaller-scale moments of genuine charm. I did get a grin on my face, for example, when Strange, at the mystic group’s sacred and ancient temple, is given their Wi-Fi password; and I did appreciate a moment later in the film when Strange makes up with an estranged girlfriend.
Concerning Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Doctor Strange, regardless of the writing, he clearly is showing a great deal of sincerity in the role. I think he does a good job demonstrating the character’s growth from an arrogant, somewhat cantankerous man to a more altruistic one; and when he’s on screen in full Doctor Strange-attire, he has an appreciable presence and authority. While I don’t think he is essential to his role the way Robert Downey, Jr. is for Tony Stark, I really can’t imagine anyone other than Cumberbatch doing it at this point.
It is difficult to give a final pass-or-fail verdict on Doctor Strange; there are some genuinely good moments in this picture that are appreciable; but they are surrounded by an unimpressive and noticeably underdeveloped plot. This is not an awful picture, but it just is not that great. If you are the kind of person who already appreciates superhero films, I do recommend checking it out. I think there is enough in this picture to hold you over. For anyone else, I’m not sure this one is worth it.
*Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War
**Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World