Finally, after what felt like an unending tide of bad to mediocre films, Hollywood offers some respite with Doctor Strange. Yet, it’s difficult to know whether to celebrate or lament this cinematic savior since it is as formulaic as they come and doesn’t offer a completely satisfying ending. Nevertheless, Doctor Strange is empirically entertaining, with captivating special effects and offering the kind of ironic humor Marvel films are known for to take the edge off all the comic book giant leaps in logic.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an extremely talented neurosurgeon who has developed a very large ego that has ruined his personal relationships at his hospital. The only person there who seems to still care for him is Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange’s one-time lover. When Strange suffers a terrible automobile accident, it’s his hands that take the brunt of the punishment, rendering the fine motor skills Strange requires for delicate brain surgery useless. Determined to heal himself, Strange learns about an elusive group in Nepal called the Kamar-Taj, which is led by someone called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Under her tutelage, Strange learns about multiple dimensions, fearsome threats, and awesome powers that he may yet wield to combat the enemies of the world.
As with most of the Marvel cinematic origin stories, the formula is practically predictable. And because we’ve seen this variation twice before in Iron Man and Thor, it feels a little stale. In Doctor Strange our hero is at the top of his game and very cocky, but he loses the thing that makes him special, forcing him to go on a journey that reveals new powers and humbles him into an altruistic superhero. While the details and the dialog differ enough to give a sense of uniqueness, it stills feels too familiar in an unexciting way.
Another shortcoming of origin stories is that the villain gets short shrift when it comes to development. So much time is spent learning about Strange and the new world he’s entering that the villain here, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), is just a generic bad guy. His motivations are explained in one line of dialog, and if you didn’t catch it, a later exchange between Strange and Kaecilius becomes less poignant and more bewildering as Kaecilius sheds tears when explaining his ultimate goal. Even worse is that Kaecilius isn’t even the ultimate villain in the film; there’s an even bigger and more generic villain called Dormammu who operates behind Kaecilius that Strange must defeat. The best villains have personal connections to the heroes, making the downfall of the villains that much more meaningful and satisfying. Those villains don’t exist in this film.
Of all the Marvel films, Doctor Strange has the highest barrier to entry for newcomers. There is simply a lot more rules, names, and gizmos to understand in order to appreciate the story and what’s happening on screen. There’s the Mirror Dimension, Dark Dimension, sling rings, relics, astral projections, spells that can manipulate time, and more. Compound that with unique character names like Dormammu, Kaecilius, and Mordo, and one couldn’t be blamed for getting lost.
Furthermore, as the list of new information grows, so do the questions in audiences’ minds. “If he can do this, then why not do that?” This is definitely a hurdle for any story universe where basically anything is possible. When there’s a spell that can turn back time, you know there’s going to be giant plot holes audiences will have to jump across.
Despite all of this, Doctor Strange is still entertaining in all the right ways. It has fun dialog, amazing visual experiences, and a story universe that feels wholly unique. In one dramatic set piece, the heroes and villains fight in the Mirror Dimension where the urban landscape of New York keeps shifting in unexpected and mind-bending ways. It’s the part of the imagination that only film and hallucinogenic drugs can capture. In a broad sense, however, Doctor Strange has the level of polish and refinement that audiences have come to expect from Marvel films.
Personally, I wouldn’t have minded if the film ran another 30 minutes longer to flesh out some of the details. I wish Strange’s relationship with Christine was more developed. Instead, we have to accept a short hallway conversation and brief apartment argument to encapsulate their history. I would have also liked to see more limits placed on the powers available to Strange or at least more defined rules. As presented, the rules seem to change with the film’s needs. And, of course, more time understanding the villain(s) would have been appreciated. Kaecilius is the type of bad guy who doesn’t consider himself a villain, but rather a hero. For the purposes of drama, it would have been nice to live in his worldview for a little longer.
It’s relieving to finally have a Hollywood film that breaks the nearly year-long slump of forgettable movies. Doctor Strange doesn’t top the list of Marvel movies, but it does provide an excellent foundation for a great series of films. On a final note, while Doctor Strange was formulaic in a very transparent way, it’s formula that also makes it successful in ways that previous films this year were not. Hollywood should get back to basics and embrace the formula, then refine it to give audiences what they expect from industry films. Otherwise, the constant concessions to the Chinese market will continue until a complete takeover becomes an inevitability.