Release Date: November 4th, 2016
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton
Doctor Strange is the 14th movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe line of films, and it combines a fantastic visual experience with what is, essentially, rehashed pieces of previous films. Benedict Cumberbatch (who constantly throws me off by speaking with an American accent) plays a very suave, humorous, and arrogant Steven Strange. For the first half of the movie, I couldn't help but compare him to Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Snark. Many of their mannerisms are incredibly similar, from their wealth to their facial hair. It's not until Strange gets his powers and connects with his mentors: Wong, Mordo, and "The Ancient One." Iron Man has no qualms about bringing death to his enemies. He was a weapons contractor after all. Strange however worked hard to save live, and he finds the prospect of bringing death and destruction as anathema to his profession and character. Once Strange has to face the reality of what he's become, his character begins to grow into his own.
Doctor Strange does little to improve the roles of villains or romantic leads in the MCU. Here, Rachel McAdams plays Christine Palmer, Strange's ex-girlfriend and fellow surgeon who remains a close confidant of the good doctor. I feel that McAdams pulled the short straw with this role compared to other romantic leads. She has less dialogue, impact, and purpose than Gwyneth Paltrow, Hayley Atwell, or Natalie Portman's characters had in their debuts. As for the rest of the cast, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring a lot of depth and emotion to their roles. The remaining performances are fine: no performance is subpar, but there's nothing that stands out about them either. And of course it's Cumberbatch who delivers, with his powerful voice and flawless deliveries.
Sadly, Doctor Strange continues the inexcusable trend of casting great actors as lame Marvel villains. Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius isn't moved by greed or anger, but rather fear for his own humanity and the fate of the world. The script tries to make him a dark mirror to Dr. Strange, who shares many of nihilistic tendencies and his desire to save humanity, but he doesn't really do much but fight, pose menacingly, and monologue in monotone. Where are our Red Skulls and Lokis? Why are all of Marvel's film villains so painfully boring?
I also want to touch on the controversy of casting white actors and actresses as characters that are identified in the source material as Asian. I don't agree with it, I think it's stupid, and if the reason to remove the Tibetan origins of these characters comes from not wanting to piss off China, then I think it's cowardly too. Dr. Strange was already in questionable territory with his manservant Wong and other accusations of cultural appropriation. Despite this, I don't think it's bad enough to boycott the movie as a couple of individuals have suggested they'll be doing online. This is not Disney and Marvel's proudest moment, but I don't think it's as bad as it could have been. Despite the fact that Marvel has had white male leads in all of their non-ensemble films, I still think they've made a better effort than others give them credit for when it comes to promoting diversity. It is my hope that as the franchises develop, diversity will be ubiquitous in Marvel's films.
The character of Dr. Strange inhabits a bizarre place in Marvel's comic universe, combining a slight "Weird Tales" horror with psychedelic 60's-70's spiritualism. He's more at home traveling through dimensions and battling demonic possession than with standard "superheroing." I was hoping that Marvel would continue its trend of hiding its comic book films in the trappings of other genres, like Thor as Shakespearean drama, Captain America as WWII period piece, and Ant-Man as heist film. I wanted Doctor Strange to be creepy and scary and to delve into parts of the Marvel world that might be a little outside of the mainstream. Unfortunately the film is a standard super hero origin story, just with a focus on magic over science fiction.
Doctor Strange does channel the psychedelic though, showing us multiple dimensions with trippy visuals that. Despite any negatives I had mentioned earlier, Doctor Strange does one thing very, very right: It is a visual splendor, and even though it owes a lot of its influences to movies like Inception, the sheer creativity and artistry of the film's sorcery spinning reality around is incredible. There are several notable scenes that are worth the price of admission alone, and the film's closing fight scene is one of the coolest scenes I've ever seen in a Marvel film (fighting while time moves backwards).
Even if Doctor Strange pulls from past Marvel films, it's pulling from things that work. The origin story and "arrogant hero" tropes are not original by any means (see: Thor, Iron Man), but the combination of unique situations, visual magic, and unique approach to conflicts lets the film stand out. So yes, I am critical of the film when comparing it to past Marvel fare, but in truth I loved watching it, and instantly wanted to go back and see it again. It was fun, entertaining, and impressed me with its visuals. When I reviewed Kubo and the Two Strings back in September, I mentioned how I had not felt actual awe or wonder in a film for awhile. And yet here we are a mere two months later, and I feel it again with Doctor Strange. This movie is fun, exciting, and everything we could want from a Marvel film. If this is what a mediocre or average Marvel film should be like, then I applaud them for keeping their quality high.
I highly recommend checking out Doctor Strange, in theaters or IMAX/GTX if possible (and as always, never go to 3D showings).