‘Doctor Strange’ Review | The Wizard of Oohs and Ahhs
It’s been eight years now and fourteen movies (not to mention a whole bunch of short films and television shows), and I suspect that for some of us, the new Marvel Studios movies don’t feel all that much like an “event” anymore. There’s a respectable homogeneity to the films in this franchise now, which makes new installments seem less “new” and the sequels to pre-existing movies seem like a trip back home again. Maybe familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Maybe sometimes it just breeds, and makes a little family.
Marvel’s newest superhero epic Doctor Strange certainly shares some DNA with the other films in the franchise. Based on a superhero co-created by Stan Lee, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor famous for playing Sherlock Holmes, as a goateed egotist who gets his comeuppance and then devotes himself to heroism in order to atone for his past. The film’s similarities with the first Iron Man are right there, on the surface, and they are inviting you to get judgy.
But while Doctor Strange never completely abandons the mighty Marvel heroic journey formula, and even though its quippy tone is consistent with most of the other films in this series, director Scott Derrickson’s new film does manage to earn its place at the dinner table. Doctor Strange adds a mystical element to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in more ways than one, expanding on that universe as we know it, broadening its philosophical scope, and raising the bar with mind-blowing set pieces that amount to more than just brutal fistfights.
Altercations in Doctor Strange do of course involve some kicking and punching but, in-keeping with the fanciful illustrations of co-creator Steve Ditko, they take place on another level entirely. Battles between sorcerers in Doctor Strange are elaborate duels that warp time and space on a whim, forcing the combatants to be creative in ways that few – if any – superheroes ever have before. Perhaps most admirable is the film’s bizarre climactic confrontation, which presents audiences with a series of shocking and hilarious images instead of just blowing up the bad guy and beating down his army of faceless minions.
Doctor Strange, the character, is tasked over the course of this film with expanding his mind. Tony Stark took several films to think about anybody other than himself, or to think about his own place in the universe. A brilliant and skilled surgeon, Doctor Stephen Strange severely damages his hands in a car accident. He tries every medical procedure known to man, and when all that fails he turns to mysticism. Throughout the majority of his movie, everyone around Stephen Strange tries to hammer home that his hands don’t matter, and that he doesn’t matter either. He can find inner peace and contribute to the peacefulness of others without being a dick about it.
This overwhelming sense of humility permeates throughout Doctor Strange, and while it doesn’t compensate for the film’s familiar hero/villain plot, it does elevate it slightly. The film introduces a “multiverse” of dimensions – a concept familiar to fans of Marvel comic books – and it acknowledges that a firm grasp of the infinite has the capacity to make an individual feel as though their own lives are meaningless. Doctor Strange is invited to embrace that understanding and explore its possibilities. But the villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) sees his own, finite existence as a cosmic joke, and decides to use his own mystical powers to pursue immortality, in order to make his own existence important, whether or not that comes at the sacrifice of others.
Mads Mikkelsen adds a lot of understanding and humor to this villain, but more importantly Kaecilius represents a warped version of Strange himself. It sounds like an obvious dramatic choice but it’s not one that Marvel always employs. Often they resort to stock villain plots about abusing science or conquering and/or destroying the world. In Doctor Strange, everyone is trying to solve the exact same problem but they interpret that problem in different ways. Solving it won’t be easy, and it may involve an act of pure sacrifice and humility, which feels like the exact antithesis of who Doctor Strange was when he started on his path.
There are confusing quirks to Doctor Strange that don’t do the film any favors. The timeline of the movie feels jumbled, with certain events obviously taking place over months (if not years) while other events, edited so that they appear to be taking place simultaneously, would seem to only occur over the span of a handful of days. It’s not an unforgivable sin – The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King does the same thing, to an even more distracting degree – but it does detract from a film that, for all of its insightful ideas and hypnotic visual flourishes, already has a plot that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.
Doctor Strange is a feast for the senses, a visual marvel that demands to be experienced on a giant screen and yes, even in 3-D. At its best it’s a consciousness-expanding head trip of fantastic proportions, and at its worst it’s merely an entertaining superhero movie, mostly familiar with occasional spikes of ingenuity. The cast is great – especially Tilda Swinton, who transforms endless exposition into a worthy and memorable character – and the action is first-rate. This may not be Marvel’s best movie, but it’s still pretty magical.
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Top Photo: Marvel Studios
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.