Oct 9, 2020
Doctor Strange (2016): Fun, but forgettable
Doctor Strange is a film that has good performances, amazing special effects, a pretty decent soundtrack, and…
Yeah, that’s it.
It’s okay. It’s just… okay.
It’s an enjoyable film that’s an amazing technical achievement and introduces an element that has long been needed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (magic), but otherwise it’s a fairly by-the-numbers Marvel movie.
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Considering their earlier efforts to downplay or explain away any and all “supernatural” characters and occurrences in the MCU as simply “aliens” or “really advanced science”, I do get the impression that Marvel made this movie less because they wanted to than because the fans wanted them to. That’s not to say that they don’t do a good job, but they don’t seem to be putting as much effort into doing a great one. This is a competent but lazy movie, one that manages to literally introduce whole new dimensions into this universe, yet still comes off as overly familiar.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who one night crashes his car because he wasn’t paying attention to the road, which leaves him badly crippled for months, and more importantly costs him the use of his hands and thus ends his career as a surgeon. This segment of the film is fairly well done; Cumberbatch does a good job conveying the pitiful frustrations of a broken asshole, a man who practically orders the hospital to give him an experimental (and fruitless) surgery to attempt to repair his hands, and who unapologetically dismisses his colleague/ex-lover Catherine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) for trying to help him. The film doesn’t shy from showing how brutal his injuries are, either. It suffers from a bit too much exposition rather than actual dialogue—we know Strange is arrogant because everyone keeps telling us he’s arrogant—but it’s probably the most dramatic and artfully-handled part of the movie.
After treatment after treatment fails to help him and he starts to bleed his bank accounts dry, Strange learns of a man who exhibited a miraculous recovery from a seemingly permanent paralysis. Tracking him down, the man directs him to a monastery in Nepal where Strange meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his master the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who reveal to him the world of magic, astral projections, alternate dimensions… and then promptly kick him out, because Strange is too full of himself to be taught. And also because they’re already reeling from a recent attack by a renegade former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who murdered their librarian and stole pages out of one of their sacred books. Mordo, who has his demons, convinces the Ancient One to give Strange a second chance, and she reluctantly takes him on and begins teaching him in the mystic arts.
Strange turns out to be a spectacular student, and begins devouring as many books as he can, much to the annoyance of the new librarian Master Wong (Benedict Wong). While studying, Strange learns of Kaecilius and discovers his plan: to summon the demon Dormammu and surrender the Earth to his Dark Dimension in the delusion that the evil entity is actually good and humanity will live forever as a result, and it falls to Strange, Mordo, and the Ancient One to stop him.
In other words, it’s a fairly typical superhero origin story, and while it sticks fairly close to the source material, there’s still very much a sense that we’ve seen all of this before. Strange is a genius jerk-ass (much like Tony Stark in Iron Man) who travels to the Himalayas where he learns skills that make him into a superhero (much like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins), whereupon comedic shenanigans ensue as the outsider struggles to fit in and make sense of the world he’s fallen into (much like, you know, every Marvel film ever). The alternate dimensions are cool and all, but the Dark Dimension itself, the main one we see, is kind of boring and frankly a little too reminiscent of the sub-atomic world from Ant-Man, while the climactic battle to save the world comes straight out of—ugh—Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Even much of the magic we see, cool as it is, seems to owe more to the dream sequences in Inception than to the Doctor Strange comic canon.
Since, to repeat, at least some of this is sticking quite close to the actual origin story of the character, I can’t criticize it too much, but coupled with the stuff that seems lifted from other movies and the fact that this would have made more sense (and been a little bit fresher) as a Phase II movie rather than a Phase III one, the film starts to grate. It very much feels like a film Marvel was obligated to make due to fan pressure and not one they were really excited to make; even the casting of Cumberbatch, great as he is in the role, isn’t exactly inspired casting, and was itself largely due to fans wanting him for the part.
And then there are the villains. Kaecilius has somewhat sympathetic motivations, but they’re not really explored. We’re told that he lost family in the past, but this isn’t elaborated on, and he isn’t given a great deal to do when he actually does have screen time, other than stand around and look menacing. I also think that Mads Mikkelsen is wrong for the role. He’s a good actor, but he doesn’t demonstrate any real range here, and has very little dialogue (most of it forgettable, with the minor exception of one scene where he gets confused about Strange’s name). And despite his character actually having a cult of followers, he has all the charisma of other MCU baddies like Malekith the Accursed and Ronan the Accuser. Which is to say, not very much, though he at least manages to (more or less) avoid being smothered in heavy prosthetic makeup. The character isn’t very well written, but even considering that, I think a different actor would have been better in the role, particularly one who could show more emotion and convincingly recruit others to his maniacal cause. None of his followers are named or given much of an identity, and Dormammu himself is not done much justice either, but Kaecilius is the lead villain and he ends up as a bit of a letdown.
It’s fortunate for the film that the formula Marvel is using still works, stale as it’s getting by this point, and this is far from the weakest entry in the franchise, in that it manages to do what it sets out to do. It helps that Swinton and Ejiofor turn in good performances playing reasonably interesting characters, with enough stuff teased to set up a sequel. Nonetheless, this is at best an above-average outing for Marvel Studios, and while it manages to make up for some of the truly disappointing superhero movies we got this year and end things on a relative high note, it doesn’t really rise too far above “fun, but forgettable”. It’s definitely a film I could watch again and be reasonably entertained by, but it’s not one that lives up to it’s significant potential. Nor, sadly, does it even really try to.