Doctor Strange is the latest film produced by Marvel Studios, directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The film follows Dr. Stephen Strange, a supremely talented surgeon who permanently injures his hands in a car accident, effectively ending his career. After trying everything that modern medicine has to offer, exhausting his fortune in the process, he turns to more mystical sources after meeting a man with a permanent spine injury who miraculously regained the ability to walk. He directs Strange to seek a place called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he begins training in the mystical arts under the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Through her tutelage he begins learning how to magically travel great distances, cast spells, and manipulate reality.
Marvel Studios’ films are rather formulaic, but I’ve always had a fondness for them, an excitement to see the next installment. When going to see Doctor Strange this was no different, but for the first time I have particularly polarized feelings afterwards. The primary reason for this was the movie’s sense of humour. Possessing some clever one-liners, witty back-and-forth exchanges, and even some slapstick, I did find it funny to watch. At the same time, I did not like that this was the approach they took toward this previously untapped facet of the MCU.
I can’t help but view it cynically, as if the studio was worried that delving into weirder territory would scare audiences away, so they played it safer. Strange is an egotistical genius with a bit of a snarky edge and Cumberbatch unsurprisingly plays this very well. His attitude makes sense because of the kind of character he is; we expect him to be incredulous. What I didn’t like is how much the surrounding cast acts comedically when they’re not playing the straight man to Strange. Almost everyone has quirks that push the humour angle further. Even the Ancient One, with all her suggested wisdom and experience, has a moment of “…any minute now…” that’s played for laughs. We’re introduced to a part of the MCU that changes how we see that reality, yet half the time it was not treated with the gravity it should have.
That all being said I still predominantly liked this movie. Strange’s brilliance allows him to excel at the mystic arts, but never to the point where he appears too capable. He’s still learning and that shows when confronted with more experienced adversaries, where he barely holds his own. He’s a lovably fallible character, at his lowest point early on saying some really harsh things to his loved ones. You dislike what his injuries make of him but you want to see him better himself. The film also does a lot to establish elements early on that pay off nicely later in the story. I especially loved how the final confrontation is handled, which stood out by having a much cleverer resolution than the standard fare of a big spectacle fight.
The supporting characters at Kamar-Taj were the strongest, each challenging Strange in different ways. There was a unity to their approaches to magic that still felt distinct between each of them. The Ancient One challenged his mind and how he perceived his own limitations, Mordo his physical abilities, and to a lesser extent Wong challenged his character. The characters who felt the weakest were his love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and the villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Christine was well played, but so under-utilized one has to wonder why she was written into the movie at all. Kaecilius’ motivations were generic and a little vague, adding him to an increasing line of underwhelming villains in the MCU.
The visuals are among the more highly praised aspects of the film and I certainly feel that’s deserved. It was worth seeing in 3D, treating the audience to a lot of mind-bending settings and surreal visuals. It was pleasing to watch, but I didn’t find it to be ground-breaking either. They serve their purpose well but weren’t anything I felt I hadn’t seen before.
Doctor Strange is another quality entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I do wish it had taken more risks with the character than it did. While the humour was fun, at times it felt a little too heavy handed and muddied the world it was establishing. Regardless of this, Cumberbatch gave us a great interpretation of Dr. Strange, the story was well constructed, and the visuals were a lot more unique compared to other films in the MCU. I have my grievances, but I still recommend this film to both fans and any newcomers who want something different from typical superhero movies. It’s far into the canon of the MCU, but accessible enough that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve seen anything before it.