The Good: Decent performances, Engaging characters, Amazing effects, Good plot progression
The Bad: Less-developed supporting characters/villain, Creates some weird continuity issues with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Basics: Doctor Strange is one of the most impressive Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but it still has a few objective shortcomings that force the viewer to accept conceits over a concrete story.
One of the true joys of the current phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that characters who have not appeared in volumes that I have read of the Marvel Comics source material are getting focused upon in the films. While Doctor Strange is apparently an incredibly popular and enduring character from Marvel Comics, when my wife turned to me during our viewing of Doctor Strange and asked, "Is that how magic is represented in the books?" I was suddenly forced to admit, "I have absolutely no clue!" There is something very refreshing about going into a Marvel Studios film with no preconceptions of what the film ought to be.
Being so unfettered by expectations at the outset, it was very easy to watch Doctor Strange as an objective viewer. Indeed, as one who is not overly wowed by spectacle, the early hype for the film being the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Inception (reviewed here!) only made me wary of Doctor Strange. Fortunately, Doctor Strange manages to be its own entity and when it fails to do that, it is derivative of other Marvel Cinematic Universe films (and, oddly, Green Lantern, reviewed here!), not Inception.
A library filled with magical tomes is attacked by Kaecilius and his followers and while he is forced to retreat when The Ancient One appears, he manages to escape with a handful of key pages from an important volume in the library and his followers behead the librarian. In America, Doctor Stephen Strange is an acclaimed neurosurgeon who works in the same hospital as Christine Palmer, a doctor he once dated. After saving the life of a person who was shot and appeared dead to another doctor, Strange is headed to a speaking engagement when he gets in a horrible car accident. He awakens to discover that his hands have been almost completely destroyed and after several surgeries, he is still unable to reliably hold tools, much less do delicate work with them needed to continue to be a neurosurgeon. His physical therapist tells him about Jonathan Pangborn, a man once confined to a wheelchair who now not only walks, but is playing basketball when Strange tracks him down. Pangborn tells Stephen Strange about Kamar-Taj, a place he want in Nepal where he learned the mystic arts and recovered the use of his legs. So, Strange spends the last of his money to go there.
Rescued off the streets of Nepal by Mordo, Stephen Strange is taken to Kamar-Taj where he is introduced to The Ancient One. The Ancient One initially rejects teaching Strange how to overcome his injuries because he is arrogant and bound by a very literal, scientific view. But, after having some out-of-body, trans-dimensional and teleportation experiences, Stephen Strange throws himself into the study of the magical arts. While Mordo takes Strange under his wing, the new librarian, Wong, is more annoyed by the newcomer. But Wong tells Dr. Strange about Kaecilius and the book that Kaecilius desecrated. In exploring the magical artifacts of Kamar-Taj and learning about the three magical centers on Earth that are protecting the planet from transdimensional attacks, Doctor Strange develops his ability and learns of the true threat that Kaecilius, as a devotee of the dark lord Dormammu, represents. As Kaecilius attempts to pull Earth into the dark dimension ruled by Dormammu, Strange, The Ancient One, Wong, and Mordo must stop them!
Doctor Strange officially brings the supernatural into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a way that plays lip service to the supernatural being a different form of science (which is how Thor described his abilities to Jane). As one still watching Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., there was momentary delight in noticing that one book was missing in the library's chained section (presumably the Dark Hold, which has appeared on the television series!), but while Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been belaboring explaining what the Dark Hold contains, Doctor Strange asks viewers to accept its premise, rather than spending a ton of time explaining it. So, while Strange questions such things as being able to read what The Ancient One describes as the source code of the universe and he accurately points out that reading about it would still leave him waving his hands in the air with nothing happening, Doctor Strange quickly transitions into the Doctor opening portals with ease in the library of Kamar-Taj.
Despite the abruptness of the development of his skills (personally, I think it would have been interesting to being Stephen Strange's narrative earlier and illustrate him studying intensively for his medical degrees to play off how he applies himself to learn the mystical arts later), Doctor Stephen Strange develops in a surprisingly compelling way over the course of Doctor Strange. Strange is smart enough to make his abilities seem plausible once he gives up his preconceptions of what he has been trained to accept. Strange learns fast, questions a lot and retains an ethical core that makes him rightly heroic, without being stale to watch.
The Ancient One is compelling and well-embodied by Tilda Swinton and she is a delight in each scene she is in. While Rachel McAdams does fine as Christine Palmer, she is not given enough to do to make the viewer feel that Palmer is a well-rounded and compelling character. That is a bit of a disappointment, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe did something similar already with Natalie Portman's character in the Thor corner of the universe. In a similar way, Mads Mikkelsen does an adequate job of playing Kaecilius, but the more one considers his character, the less satisfying (and more generic) his role is in Doctor Strange. Kaecilius is looking to tap into power from the dark realm controlled by Dormammu based on a nebulous trauma that brought him to The Ancient One in the past. Doctor Strange does a poor job of selling that idea that only Dormammu has the power to prolong life, that a traumatized guy like Kaecilius would want to live as an immortal instead of either rewrite time or be put out of his misery, and/or that Dormammu would want to share any of his powers with Kaecilius.
Without knowing any of the source material, the post-credit defection of one of the film's main characters seemed both abrupt and sloppy. As well, it was one of the few derivative elements in Doctor Strange. For those who saw Green Lantern and enjoyed it, one of the enduring issues with the film was that Sinestro made a compelling argument that the Guardians ought to fight Parallax with the power it drew upon; fear. The post-credit sequence of Green Lantern had, after all of the conflict had passed, Sinestro making the transition into a Yellow Lantern with no context, no threat, and an entirely inorganic sense of character motion based on where the film had left him. In a virtually identical way, the second post-credit scene to Doctor Strange does a lot to completely undermine and redefine one of the most likable characters in the movie.
That said, Doctor Strange has a lot going for it. Stephen Strange is an interesting character . . . even if his incredible skill makes viewers who love the Marvel Cinematic Universe films ask "If he is such a gifted neurosurgeon, why didn't Tony Stark call upon him to remove the shrapnel menacing his heart right after Iron Man?!" Strange is snarky, brilliant and has a wit that makes his love of trivia seem more playful than annoying. Stephen Strange is one of Benedict Cumberbatch's best roles. Perhaps the highest compliment one might pay about Cumberbatch is that, despite there being numerous similarities between Stephen Strange and Cumberbatch's rendition of Sherlock Holmes, one never feels like they are watching Cumberbatch play his Sherlock character in Doctor Strange.
The rest of the cast does great work supporting the protagonist's journey. Rachel McAdams plays surprise, shock, and the remnants of love well for Palmer, Tilda Swinton is both mysterious and convincing as The Ancient One. Mads Mikkelsen is off to a good start for the final Quarter of 2016 as Kaecilius and both Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor make their supporting sorcerer roles memorable; far more than guys delivering excessive exposition.
And director Scott Derrickson makes Doctor Strange look suitably amazing and he moves the film at a pace that keeps it engaging the entire run. The result is an overwhelmingly satisfying Marvel Cinematic Universe film that gets great work out of its principles and turns the franchise in a very different, but mostly incredible and enjoyable, direction.
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
My Blind Brother
The Whole Truth
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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