Doctor Strange: A Psychedelic, if Somewhat Predictable Addition to the MCU
Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was a crazy idea at inception. The possibility of an interlocking film universe that mirrored the comics by piecing together various heroes adventures towards the culmination of bigger events was something, while not completely precedent-setting, not attempted before on such a scale. It was a crazy gambit to undertake in 2008 with Iron Man and one whose success was unclear and murky at the time. Now standing at 14 films strong with their latest film Doctor Strange (not to mention the multitude of cable and streaming TV shows), the MCU has been a success beyond any comic-book fanboys wildest dreams.
How does Marvel continue to succeed? By managing to stay fresh, despite some repetitive story beats. Doctor Strange epitomizes this mindset by introducing new material into the universe exploring a more mystical and spiritual side of the MCU that previous films had left untouched. This allows the film to feel fun and inventive, even if the basic Marvel formula peers through the psychedelic paint. To be fair to the screenwriters and director Scott Derrickson, they do move pieces of the formula around and even subvert one piece of it in the final act. Instead of our usual “hero fights the drones of the big bad” battle, the film unleashes a clever little trick that manages to hammer home some subtle themes that had been sprinkled throughout the movie. This final confrontation also contains a character that comic fans will be very happy to see even in an altered form.
But what is this movie even about? We follow Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is considered one of the world’s finest neurosurgeons. His intelligence and success make him arrogant though which results in an unfortunate car crash permanently damaging his hands that are crucial to his career as a surgeon. After exhausting every venue of help in the medical world (curiously not even giving Tony Stark a ring), Strange heads east seeking out the help of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Here, he begins to learn the mystical arts of magic while the threat of rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) looms in the background. He is assisted by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) who are fellow sorcerers serving under the Ancient One.
Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One using her power on Strange
One of the main sources of praise for the film thus far has been the dazzling effects-driven action sequences. They live up to the hype to be sure. Derrickson has worked with his effect artists to create a plethora of trippy visual mosaics that will leave the brain spinning. Trailers seemed reminiscent of Inception but that is hardly on your mind when said scenes occur. The action here is different than any superhero film thus far as combatants use a barrage of magical weaponry, gravity-defying spells, reality warping and dimension-hopping to do battle with each other. Fans of the comics will catch plenty of Easter egg references to the powerful mystical entities that populate Marvel including a certain time-shifting artifact that is used to clever effect. As with every score in the MCU that is memorable, it is scored here by Michael Giacchino who lets loose some sitars and other sounds to create the magical score for the film. It complements the film well and does attract some attention, though it has no singular notable theme like the Avengers or Captain America films do.
The script is overall fairly good as far as the plotting and characters go. There are several instances where the logic of a scene is questionable as the film seems intent on zipping through events at the 2/3 mark of the running time. Still, there are many powerful characters moments with some of the best ones of the MCU present here. A particular scene between Strange and the Ancient One is a surprisingly emotional and philosophical one played perfectly by Cumberbatch and Swinton. Cumberbatch is quite capable overall as the film’s lead with many subtle notes to his performance and having one of the better-developed characters in the series. Base interpretations will note the similarities to Robert Downey Jr‘s Tony Stark. Strange is a different beast however who doesn’t necessarily want to play hero like others in the MCU. The themes of responsibility, making use of the time we have, and the delicate nature of power all thread throughout the film.
Strange wielding the power of a magical artifact
The rest of the supporting cast is talented if not overly important. Rachel McAdams features as the main female romance to Strange, who makes for some chemistry-filled if brief and unimportant scenes with Cumberbatch. Wong is intended as comic relief though much of the humor falls flat with him. Ejiofor’s Mondo is the most developed character next to Strange and the Ancient One and he contrasts fairly well with every character in the film by the end. Still, he feels overall underused and a mere placeholder in some scenes. Mikkelsen carries on a theme of relatively one-dimensional villains for these films as well. While the ideas raised by this villainous sorcerer were interesting, the character itself was bland and most will likely forget him by the time they get home from the theater.
Doctor Strange is another solid entry into the MCU. While it doesn’t stand with the best of the series, it features enough to be distinctive and features some material that is surprisingly more deep than these movies attempt to cover. Aside from the vague sense of familiarity that permeates the entire film, it is one hell of a ride. Some slightly sloppy editing aside, Strange is vastly entertaining and will keep you engaged the entire running time. There is plenty for both casual fans and more hardcore ones to enjoy. If there is one blockbuster film that will be spell-binding this November, it will be Doctor Strange.
Opened in theaters nationwide on November 4th.